Marva Collins: From One-Room School House to Innovative Educator

Many talented educators come from humble backgrounds, yet manage to make the most of their modest beginnings. Such is the case with Marva Collins, a Chicago educator who earned national recognition for her innovative teaching methods.

Marva Delores Knight was born August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama, the first of two daughters born to businessman Henry and Bessie (Nettles) Knight. Raised in the heart of the segregated South, Marva attended a one-room school house and learned first-hand about the substandard educational opportunities offered to African American students. Nevertheless, her father expected her to study hard and succeed.

As a young woman, Marva attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. After college, she taught school for two years. In 1959, the young woman moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she met and married draftsman Clarence Collins. The couple had three children. For the next 14 years, while raising her family, Marva worked as a substitute teacher in the Chicago School District.

Marva became concerned with youngsters she believed were not being served well by the school system, so in 1975 she withdrew $5,000 from her retirement account and founded a private school on the second floor of her home in the Chicago neighborhood of Garfield Park. Thus was born the Westside Preparatory School. Only a few students enrolled, but the dedicated educator resolved that her school would be open to any student who was not succeeding in the larger school systems, particularly low-income children, and those who’d been diagnosed with irremediable learning disabilities. At the end of the first year of the school’s operation, every student enrolled in Westside Prep earned test scores significantly higher than they had scored in previous years.

Marva’s methods became known as the Collins Method. Her program centered on phonics, math, reading, Language Arts, and the classics. She was also a big believer in the Socratic Method, which emphasizes learning through asking questions and engaging in dialogue with peers. “The essence of teaching is to make learning contagious, to have one idea spark another,” Marva once said.

The talented educator and her innovative school quickly became a national story, featured in stories in the magazines Time and Newsweek and in television news programs 60 Minutes and Good Morning America. In 1982, the story of Marva’s life and school were the subjects of a television movie starring powerhouse actors Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman.

For her pioneering teaching methods, Marva was honored with the Watson Washburn Award from the Reading Reform Foundation (1978), the Jefferson Award for Public Service (1981) and the Humanitarian Award for Excellence. Marva also received the first Lifetime Achievement Award from the Monroe County Heritage Association during Black History Month (1994). In addition, she was awarded honorary doctorates from Amherst, Dartmouth, and Notre Dame. President George W. Bush honored the chalkboard champion with the National Humanities Medal (2004). To read more about this amazing teacher, click on the link for or the link For the Kids’ Sake.

Marva Collins died of natural causes on June 24, 2015, in Beaufort County, South Carolina. She was 78 years old.

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