Student Achievement

Marva Collins, Famed Chicago Educator, Stressed Potential of Low-Income Students

By Christina A. Samuels — June 30, 2015 3 min read
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Guest post by Christina A. Samuels

Marva Collins, a legendary educator known for fostering expectations of excellence for children raised in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago, died last week at age 78.

But her legacy lives on, both in the children and the teachers whose lives she touched while she was the founder—and heart and soul—of Westside Preparatory Academy.

“Hardly a day goes by that I’m not informed by her example, or I don’t think about her in some way that guides me in trying to make this charter school the best it can be,” said Richard Baumgartner, who started teaching at Westside Prep in 1987 and stayed through the mid-1990s, in an interview with Education Week. He later founded Rise Academy Charter School in Lubbock, Texas.

Baumgartner said Collins taught him that “If you believe that you can, you can start very small and become a great somebody in the world. Mrs. Collins was definitely a great somebody.”

Marva Collins began her teaching career in the Chicago school district, but soon became disillusioned with the public school system, her son, Patrick Collins, told the Chicago Tribune. So she cashed out her $5,000 pension and started her own school, an independent institution designed to provide rigorous instruction to disadvantaged students. Her first classroom was on the second floor of her home.

As the pre-K through 8th grade school grew, so too did Collins’ fame. In 1981, her story was the subject of a made-for-television movie starring Cicely Tyson as Collins and Morgan Freeman as her husband, Clarence. Thousands of people visited the school to find out her secret of eliciting high achievement from students who, on paper, would not be expected to succeed.

What they found was a no-frills facility with instructional methods that included drills, a focus on literature and clear communication, and children who were told repeatedly that academic success was within their reach.

She would lift children’s chins and say “Speak up honey, you’re brilliant,” said a former student on a 1995 episode of “60 Minutes.” “Someone telling you that every day, five days a week for three or four years, that’s in you. It becomes a part of you.”

Collins caught the attention of President-elect Ronald Reagan’s transition team, but she turned down an offer to become U.S. Secretary of Education. However, she went on to train others in her educational methods. In 2004, she was awarded a National Humanities Medal.

Westside Prep was developed at a time that many black independent schools were operating as an alternative to traditional school systems, said Lawson Bush V, a professor of educational leadership and administration at California State University, Los Angeles.

Marva Collins did not adhere to the Afrocentric focus of many other black independent schools, Bush said. But “she believed children from the inner city, African-American children, can learn at the highest level, no matter what you put in front of them,” he said. “She definitely made an argument that these children are worthy. She represents the best of the independent black schools.”

Even so, Westside Prep closed in 2008, as families were unable or unwilling to pay the $5,500 annual tuition. Collins moved to Hilton Head, S.C. to organize training programs for educators, the New York Times reported.

Collins was born in Monroeville, Ala. and graduated from the all-black Escambia County Training School in Atmore, Ala., and from what is now known as Clark Atlanta University, in Atlanta. In addition to her son Patrick, she is survived by another son, Eric, a sister, Cynthia Sutton; and her second husband, George R. Franklin. Her first husband, Clarence, died in 1995, and a daughter, Cynthia, died in 2008.

Marva Collins, right, participates in a 2011 symposium with fellow panelists Danny Glover and former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali during the National Civil Rights Museum’s 2011 Freedom Award Public Forum in Memphis, Tenn.—Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.