Marva Collins, educator who aimed high for poor, black students, dies at 78

Marva Collins, a former substitute teacher whose success at educating poor black students in a private school she founded made her a candidate for secretary of education and the subject of a television movie, died on Wednesday in a hospice near her home in South Carolina. She was 78.

Her death was confirmed by Hospice Care of the Lowcountry in Bluffton, S.C.

After working as a substitute teacher for 14 years in Chicago public schools, Ms. Collins cashed in her $5,000 in pension savings and opened Westside Preparatory School in 1975. The school originally operated in the basement of a local college and then, to be free of red tape (the same reason she said she had refused federal funds), in the second floor of her home.

She began with four students, including her daughter, charging $80 a month in tuition. Enrollment at the school, on Chicago’s South Side, grew to more than 200, in classes from prekindergarten through eighth grade. It remained in operation for more than 30 years.

Ms. Collins set high academic standards, emphasized discipline and promoted a nurturing environment. She taught phonics, the Socratic method and the classics and, she insisted, never expected her students to fail.

“Kids don’t fail,” she once said. “Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures — they are the problem.”

At Westside Prep, she said in 2004 when she was awarded the National Humanities Medal, “there are no dropouts, no substitute teachers, and when teachers are absent, the students teach themselves.”

“We’re an anomaly in a world of negatives,” she added. “Our children are self-motivated, self-generating, self-propelled.”

An article about the school in 1977 in The Chicago Sun-Times attracted national attention, an interview on “60 Minutes” and the interest of filmmakers, who went on to produce “The Marva Collins Story,” a 1981 television movie on CBS with Cicely Tyson playing Ms. Collins and Morgan Freeman as her husband. She even appeared briefly in a video for Prince’s song “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”

As her stature as an educator grew, she began to train other teachers from around the country and published several books, including “ ‘Ordinary’ Children, Extraordinary Teachers” and “Marva Collins’ Way,” written with Civia Tamarkin. Speaking engagements followed.

In 1980, President-elect Ronald Reagan was said to be leaning toward choosing Ms. Collins for secretary of education, but she said she would reject the job if it were offered. By that time she had already turned down offers to run the public school systems in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Marva Delores Knight was born in Monroeville, Ala., on Aug. 31, 1936. Her father, Henry, was a merchant, cattleman and undertaker. Her mother was the former Bessie Nettles.

Raised in Atmore, near Mobile, in the segregated South, she graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, now Clark Atlanta University, and taught in Alabama schools before moving to Chicago. There she worked as a medical secretary before becoming a substitute public-school teacher.

She married Clarence Collins, who died in 1995. They had three children, two of whom, Eric and Patrick, survive her, as does her mother, Bessie Mae Johnson; a sister, Cynthia Sutton; and her second husband, George R. Franklin.

In 1982, Ms. Collins was stung by accusations that she was not certified as a teacher and that she had overstated her record of success, but parents of the children in her school rallied to her defense. Her supporters said that as a substitute teacher she had not needed formal certification; others said their children had shown great progress after enrolling in the school.

“I’ve never said I’m a superteacher, a miracle worker, all those names they gave me,” she told The New York Times that year. “It’s unfair to expect me to live up to it. I’m just a teacher.”

Ms. Collins later turned over the operation of Westside Prep to her daughter, Cynthia. It closed in 2008, with annual tuition at $5,500 and enrollment dwindling.

Ms. Collins moved to Hilton Head, S.C., where she organized programs to train teachers and administrators.

She insisted that she never craved awards or publicity. All she wanted, shetold The Island Packet, the local newspaper, in 2007, was “to be able to say I got an A-plus on the assignment God gave me.”

Source: NY Times

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