BHM Featured Education Leader: Marva Collins

Current Events & News | 02/09/2016

Amariah Tyler Digital Strategist & Memphis Operations Coordinator

As Memphis Operations Coordinator and Digital Strategist, Amariah works to improve the education system and schools in Tennessee.

Continuing with the theme of celebrating black leaders in education, here’s a piece on civil rights activist and educator Marva Collins. She is known for her pioneering efforts that transformed the lives of many impoverished black students.

Marva Collins, born on August 21, 1936 in Monroeville, Alabama, is known as one of the most influential educators and civil rights activists in American history. She was raised in a small town called Atmore, Alabama during a time when the South was segregated, and signs that read “Blacks Only” or “Whites Only” were not uncommon. As a young child she became acutely aware of the limited opportunities offered to black students. Schools with black students received very low funding, if at all, and had limited books and resources available.

After graduating from Clark College (later known as Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia, she taught at Alabama Schools for a couple of years before moving to Chicago in 1959. While there, she married and had children. She continued her teaching career and worked as a substitute teacher in Chicago Public Schools for 14 years. 

After observing the poor levels of learning that she felt black students were receiving over the years, she took $5000 out of her pension fund and started her own school, Westside Preparatory School. The school started with only four students and operated on the second floor of her home. Westside Prep focused on high standards, discipline, and creating a nurturing learning environment. Her teaching methods (later known to some as “The Collins Method”) focused on phonics, mathematics, English, and reading the classics, like Socrates.

She sought out black students who she believed the Chicago school system failed or deemed unteachable due to learning disabilities. Collins believed that these students were teachable and able to learn despite their obstacles if given the opportunity. “Kids don’t fail,” she once stated. “Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures—they are the problem.”

As her school grew, her story and impact on educators across the nation drew national attention, and she was featured in TIME, Newsweek, on Good Morning America and on 60 Minutes. Her life story was even made into a television movie starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman.

Due to the success of her unorthodox teaching methods, she was given the opportunity to train other educators and administrators around the country throughout her career. She was even recommended by President Ronald Reagan for the position of Secretary of Education although she declined. In 2004, she was awarded the National Humanities Medal for all of her teaching and education advocacy efforts.

Marva Collins died on June 28, 2015, but her impact on thousands of black children around the world continues to live on. Although Westside Preparatory closed its doors in 2008 due to lack of funding and enrollment, her influence and successful teaching methods continue to serve as an inspiration to many. During a time when black students were told that they could not succeed, she made sure that they knew that they could.

Thank you, Marva Collins.

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