“Kids don’t fail,” famed educator Marva Collins often declared. “Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures, they are the problem.”
This quote was Collins’ mantra, her battle cry to rescue young students from uncaring and poorly trained teachers, dull and unimagined curricula and an educational system totally insensitive to the needs and desires of African-American children. Collins was a relentless advocate for the underserved students, with an energy and perception only exceeded by her creativity, in and out of the classroom.
Her ingenuity and an innate understanding of the importance of self-worth for impressionable Black children would in the end be her legacy, a legacy that is by no means stagnate.
Collins comes to mind mainly because of her recent death and the lack of coverage of it in far too many outlets. An article about Harper Lee, author of the classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” noted that she was born in Monroeville, Ala. It also stated that author Truman Capote was from this small town and was a dear friend of Lee’s.
Because Collins was born Marva Deloise Nettles Aug. 31, 1936, in Monroeville, another notable can be added to the town’s nationally known luminaries. There’s nothing available to suggest that they knew each other because they were of a different race, had an age difference of at least 10 years and possessed different occupations.
Even so, for a tiny hamlet in Alabama to produce such a trio of stalwarts in their respective fields is exceptional. Collins’ ascent may be even more remarkable given the obstacles she had to overcome.
One of the formidable obstacles was a segregated school system. Collins was raised in Atmore, Ala., which in terms of educational opportunities was no better than Monroeville. Few Black schools in the South when she was coming of age possessed the adequate books and supplies to satisfy inquisitive Black students. They were shortchanged on equipment. Barred from white libraries, the task of learning was even more difficult in crowded classrooms, with teachers only marginally concerned with the development of the young minds. Thanks to a father who stressed serious study, she was able to get over most of the racist obstacle course.
This was in the South, but that pattern of disregard hampered the educational growth of Black children in the North as well, Collins would learn.
Imbued with an ample supply of self-confidence and pride instilled by her father, Collins attended Clark College in Atlanta, majoring in secretarial skills. After two years teaching in Alabama, she moved to Chicago. There, she met and married a draftsman, Clarence Collins. They had three children.
Her introduction to the Chicago school system was as a substitute teacher, assignments that gave her an opportunity to experience a wide swath of the educational process, its strengths and weaknesses. Over 14 years in this capacity, along with raising her own children, Collins learned firsthand about how the system was failing the children. Collins’ answer to the problem? Start your own school.
To accomplish this objective, she withdrew $5,000 from her retirement fund and opened Westside Preparatory School in the second floor of her home in Garfield Park. It was here with a small enrollment of students that she began what was to become the Collins Method, with a special emphasis on children who had been rejected or classified with severe learning disabilities.
Her method focused on phonics, math, reading, English and classical literature. A sample of her reading list included works by Chaucer, Plato, Homer and Tolstoy. When asked how she rescued these children from such wretched beginnings, she said it was mostly dutiful parents who were determined to get their children the best education.
“If Abraham Lincoln were enrolled in public schools today,” Collins told Ebony magazine, “he would probably be in a learning disability program. Lincoln didn’t learn to read until age 14. No one should rule any child out of the educational picture. Parents, particularly Black parents, have to be willing to make sacrifices to make sure their children are educated properly.”
The debut of her method resulted in astonishing numbers, with all of the students achieving higher scores than they had previously.
Collins’ success became a national story, and she began appearing on radio and television shows and profiled in leading publications. An appearance on CBS’ “60 Minutes” was the coup de grace and brought her into the living rooms of America. Her success and fame was like a brush fire and soon a movie of her life and dedication was made in 1982, featuring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman in starring roles.
Soon, the school in her home was too small to accommodate the demand from parents seeking to enroll their children in her program. A larger facility was opened on Chicago’s South Side, and other schools using her name and method sprung up in Ohio and Florida. Over the years, she and her schools have funneled hundreds, if not thousands of students, on to success academic and professional careers.
She began receiving honors at the same rate as she was cultivating young minds and preparing them for higher education. Wherever she was called to speak, there were often large crowds, all eager to learn her techniques, to emulate her style and method.
Also, the flood of awards arrived, including the Jefferson Award and the Humanitarian Award for Excellence. She received honorary doctorates from such prestigious colleges as Amherst, Dartmouth and Notre Dame. In 2004, President George H.W. Bush placed a National Humanities Medal around her neck.
But four years later, her dream school was shut down, unable to continue after the funds from various foundations and donations from the community dried up. Even before it closed, the enrollment had dropped precipitously.
On June 24, Collins, 78, died of natural causes in South Carolina.
She may have made the final transition, but Collins can rest in peace, assured that her legacy, her commitment and love continues in the multitude of students who were fortunate enough to experience her passion for education; her students thrived under her watchful eye and warm embrace—many of them now successful educators still utilizing the Collins Method, the Collins touch.