She Was Told to Stop Caring So Much for Her Students — So She Started Her Own School

Marva Collins with some of her students in 1980.

Marva Collins with some of her students in 1980. Image via AAUW archives

May 03, 2016

1989 AAUW Achievement Awardee Marva Collins was a teacher for more than 14 years before she realized what she really wanted from her career: to “be the teacher I sought to have when I was in school.”

Collins began teaching in Alabama, and then moved on to a full-time substitute teacher position in the Chicago public school system. After 14 years at a public school, she concluded that the institution “actually recruited children for failure,” as she explained in records from the AAUW archives. Each year she saw more and more students become dropouts, or what she called “push-outs” — students who had no teacher to advocate for their academic success, and no tools to engage with their community and become productive citizens. In a 1968 statement, Collins wrote about the principal of her former school telling her that “the problem with you, Marva, is that you expect too much from these children. They are not your children. Close the door, do what you can, and stop worrying about whether the children are learning or not.”

But she wouldn’t stop. She could not continue to witness the absence of encouragement from her fellow teachers and administrators and the disheartening number of students who seemed destined for failure. She was determined to help her students, and she knew that they had potential. “I see children’s eyes holding wonder like a cup, and then I know why I teach,” she wrote in an AAUW-archived article.

So Collins left the Chicago public school system behind and founded the Westside Preparatory School in 1975 in Garfield Park. The school started with only six children (two of whom were her own) on the second floor of her home. The purpose of the Westside Preparatory School was to disprove the myth (which still persists in society today) that schools are better off leaving students behind when they do not learn quickly enough. “All children can learn if they are not taught too thoroughly that they cannot learn,” Collins wrote.

In just a few years, the school expanded into its own building with 12 teachers and 244 students. In addition to teaching, Collins also provided training to teachers from all across the country who were eager to learn her method that reached students who were elsewhere considered underachievers. Collins did not tolerate mediocrity and instilled in all of her students that “they have a right to fail, but they will not fail here.” She emphasized the importance of phonetics in teaching her students to read, often having them read aloud. She also focused on more abstract lessons such as self-reliance and self-respect, drawing on Martin Luther King Jr.’s writing to encourage her students to pursue dreams of their own.

Her progress did not go unnoticed: President Ronald Reagan offered her the U.S. secretary of education position, and she was also asked to be Los Angeles’ superintendent of schools, but she declined both prestigious offers to continue teaching at the Westside Preparatory School.

In 1989, AAUW recognized Collins with the Achievement Award to acknowledge her dedication to and passion for reforming Chicago’s school system. She passed away in June of 2015, leaving behind a tremendous effort to better our education system and create young leaders for our future.

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Jordan Brunson.


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