Today, our featured Black educator is Marva Collins.
Marva Collins was an educator, an activist, a believer in Black children and the communities they came from; the very people many in society give up on.
Born in Alabama, in 1936, Collins graduated from their segregated schools to attend Clark College in Atlanta. She didn’t initially consider teaching, but turned to it, as many educated Black women initially did, because, as she said, many companies “didn’t want to hire a Black secretary.”
She returned to Alabama to teach typing, bookkeeping, and business law at Monroe County training school. However, she found particular enjoyment in teaching and helping Black students. Marva was very receptive to the feedback she received from students and her principal, and consistently and deeply reflected about teaching and learning. And, while she enjoyed it, after a couple of years, she decided to move north, to Chicago.
In Chicago, Collins initially pursued a medical secretary position at a Chicago hospital. While there, Collins met her husband and had three children. At some point, an intense desire to return to teaching children developed and she left the hospital to become a substitute teacher for Chicago public schools.
I had a little girl tell me once, ‘I can’t learn to read’ and she ended up graduating summa cum laude from the University of Kentucky. How did I do it? I gave the kids in my school confidence. I told them, ‘You are so bright. If I touch your head, do you think I’ll be as bright?’ I told them, ‘Everybody is a star’ and they believed it. I told them, ‘You have a mind, you have a brain, and you can do anything anyone else can do.’ There’s no pride like a little 4-year-old who can read.
After fourteen years, Marva felt the need to do even more.
Collins had a passion for helping young people and lamented teachers who didn’t have a similar passion. She noticed how many teachers didn’t care about Black children’s success and didn’t know what they were doing. She likely saw, what a Temple University study recently revealed – many teachers who are not connected to Black communities, find it hard to teach Black students from those communities.
Soon, Marva turned her frustration into determination, and with the support of her husband, cashed in her $5000 pension and started the Westside Preparatory School in 1975. Marva had her pension, books, a blackboard, and a pair of legs that will last the day. With these items and a mindset committed to personal responsibility to support Black students, Marva enrolled those Black students who educators considered “undesirable” or “unteachable” for $80 a month, going from 4 students to 200. Her student-centered school remained in operation for 30 years. Collins built her school on the belief that,
Kids don’t fail… Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures — they are the problem.
To that end, she sought to improve upon the traditional school model and teacher instruction with her methods. With her commitment to her students, Collins’ school raised students’ belief in themselves and their proficiency on standardized tests.
She received national attention due to her success. Music artist, Prince, became a friend and donor to Westside Prep. Collins was even asked to serve as Secretary of Education by President Ronald Reagan, but she declined.
I missed the classroom . . . the excitement of helping students discover the solution to a problem.
Collins briefly returned to Chicago’s public schools in 1996 to supervise three schools on academic probation. Those schools improved at the end of that school year. Shortly after, Marva Collins Preparatory Schools opened in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. Recipient of over 40 honorary doctorates, Collins went on to support over 100,000 teachers and educators worldwide.
She was even portrayed by the recently departed Cicely Tyson in a made for television production of her life and efforts leading the Westside Preparatory School in 1981, The Marva Collins Story.
Collins was an educator who believe that all children could succeed and would succeed. While success can be defined differently for all children, it is important for educators to believe in children. Their mindsets, skills, and will should usher students to the success they’ve imagined for themselves – while speaking life into them along the way. This was the work of Marva Collins. The attention never drove her to work. The love of the people drove her to work. We’ll do well to remember that our work must center on the people and our love should make us embrace the accountability necessary for our students success.
Marva Collins; a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
For more information on Marva Collins, visit the following site.