Marva Collins

Marva Collins is an innovator in education who made her name with a school she started in Chicago using her own money. A school teacher who was discouraged by both the system and other educators’ attitudes towards their students, Collins was determined to reach out to students who were falling through the cracks. Her methods, though very old ones, were considered revolutionary to modern educators. She continues to instruct other educators in the methods she uses to touch children’s hearts and excite their desire to learn.

Born in Monroeville, Alabama, in 1936, Marva Delores Nettles came from a fairly wealthy African-American family. Her father was a business owner, and her family was very close and loving. Her father doted on her; but rather than spoiling her, he challenged her. He constantly encouraged her to be strong, to work hard, to believe in herself, and to learn. With his encouragement, she did something not too many women did at that time, let alone African-American women: she went to college.

Marva graduated from Clark College, which now called Clark Atlanta University, with a B.A. in secretarial sciences. However, she had difficulty finding a job in that field so she started teaching. For two years she taught at Monroe County Training School. Finally in 1959, she found a job as a medical secretary in a Chicago hospital. It was here that she met and married Clarence Collins, a draftsman.

After two years of secretary work, Collins realized that she missed teaching and interacting with children. She left her secretarial job to teach in the Chicago public school system as an elementary school teacher. She taught for fourteen years before realizing that something needed to change. She was growing more discouraged by the way the system treated many of the children who needed the most help, as they came from impoverished families with little support at home. Even the other teachers seemed to have given up on them and often criticized her.

Her own children, who were enrolled in private schools, weren’t receiving the type of education she wanted for them. Thus the Westside Preparatory School was born. In 1975, with her $5,000 pension, Marva Collins started a school first in a Chicago community college, and later in the second story of her home. Her first pupils were two of her own children plus other children from the neighborhood, all of whom had been, for various reasons, labeled “unteachable” by the Chicago schools. One girl had even been told she was retarded.

Collins took these children and lavished attention, love, and discipline on them all. She concentrated on reading, mathematics, and writing. She used classical teaching methods that have been around for hundreds of years, but also believed in her students. She taught them that they could learn, that they were going to have to work for it as no one was going to give it to them. More than that, she helped them want to learn.

Collins’s school was noted for two characteristics: the Socratic method and the use of the Classics. No readers were used; the children read classical literature by great authors. Then she used the Socratic method of questions and answers to draw the children into discussions that stretched their minds. In this manner she emphasized both knowledge content and the logical use of it.

Not long after the start of her school, Marva Collins started receiving national attention for her unusual methods and successes. Her students, the “unteachables,” were reading several grades above level and scoring high on achievement tests. She was featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes and Time Magazine. She was even considered for Secretary of Education by Ronald Reagan and turned down opportunities to be superintendent of school systems in Los Angeles and Chicago. In 1981, a movie about her life and school starring Morgan Freeman and Cecily Tyson aired on national television. The notoriety allowed her to move her school to a new building and reach even more students.

Decades after the humble start of the school, Collins has seen amazing success. Though her school has always remained small, her students have consistently done well. Many have gone on to prestigious universities and entered many professions. The girl who was labeled as retarded in her first year of the school later graduated from college Summa Cum Laude.

In recent years, Collins has handed over the day to day running of the school to her daughter, Cynthia Collins, also one of her first pupils. Marva Collins now teaches thousands of other teachers about her methods and why her school has succeeded among inner-city children when many others have failed. Five schools now exist that operate on her model: three in Chicago, one in Milwaukee, and one in Cincinnati. Many corporations also hire her to speak to their employees, as many of her methods translate into the business world as well.

Over the years, Collins has received a number of awards for her work. These include:

  • The Jefferson Award for Benefitting the Disadvantaged
  • The Humanitarian Award for Excellence
  • Legendary Women of the World
  • National Humanities Medal
  • Several honorary doctorates from several universities.

For more information about Marva Collins or her unique educational philosophies, please consult the following articles.