Born: August 31, 1936
African American teacher
Schoolteacher Marva Collins founded Chicago's Westside Preparatory School in 1975. The success of the school and her teaching methods brought her media attention and inspired a made-for-TV film.
Collins was born Marva Delores Nettles on August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama. She has described her childhood as "wonderful" and filled with material comforts that included riding in luxury cars and having her own horse. Her father, Alex Nettles, owned a general store and later purchased a ranch and a funeral home. He was very attentive and supportive to Marva and her younger sister, Cynthia. By challenging Marva to use her mind, he gave her a strong sense of pride and self-esteem.
Marva attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating in 1957 with a degree in secretarial sciences, she returned to Alabama to teach typing, bookkeeping, and business law at Monroe County Training School. Marva never intended to be a teacher, however, so she left the profession in 1959 to take a position as a medical secretary at Mount Sinai Hospital in Chicago, Illinois. While in the city she met Clarence Collins, a draftsman (one who draws plans and sketches) whom she married in September 1960.
In 1961 Marva Collins returned to teaching in Chicago schools, because she missed helping youngsters discover the joy of learning. She became annoyed with the many other teachers who did not share her enthusiasm for the job. With her pension money and the support of her husband, Collins opened the Westside Preparatory School in the basement of Daniel Hale Williams University. She welcomed students who had been rejected by other schools and were labeled "unteachable." She planned to give them the time and attention they needed.
Collins decided not to accept funds from the federal government because she did not want to follow all the regulations that came with such backing. She soon moved the school into the second floor of her home, which she and her husband remodeled to handle approximately twenty children ranging in age from four to fourteen years old. The school was eventually moved to its own building near Collins's home, and enrollment increased to over two hundred students. By offering a great deal of individual attention, strict discipline (enforcing obedience and order), as well as focusing on reading, math, and language skills, Collins was able to raise the test scores of her students, many of whom went on to college and did well. "It takes an investment of time to help your children mature and develop successfully," declared Collins in Ebony.
Collins started attracting attention in 1977 after a newspaper article on her and her school was printed. Several national publications picked up the story, and she was featured on the television program 60 Minutes. A made-for-TV
In 1982 critics charged that she had broken her vow not to accept federal funds and that she had exaggerated her students' test scores. An investigation revealed that Collins received sixty-nine thousand dollars through the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Collins claimed that the money had come to her through a social services agency, and that she had no idea it had originally come from Washington, D.C. On the issue of Collins's success as a teacher, many parents of Westside students rallied in her support, as did Morley Safer of 60 Minutes, who was quoted in Newsweek as saying, "I'm convinced that Marva Collins is one hell of a teacher." Many studies of students taught by Collins's methods showed dramatic improvement in their test scores and success in later life.
Collins received donations from many individuals, including rock star Prince, who became cofounder and honorary chairman of Collins's National Teacher Training Institute. Collins has received numerous awards for her work, and has taught her methods to over one-hundred thousand teachers, school administrators, and business people. She lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and is a popular public speaker. There are now five schools using her teaching methods: three in Chicago; one in Cincinnati, Ohio; and one in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
American Spectator (April 1983).
Black Enterprise (June 1982).
Collins, Marva. Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers. Norfolk, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 1992.
Collins, Marva, and Civia Tamarkin. Marva Collins' Way. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1990.