This Day In History: August 31st
National Humanities Medal recipient and educational pioneer, Marva Collins, reshaped the academic world with her unique methodology for getting students engaged. Despite attending segregated schools in rural Alabama, Collins used her experience to empower several generations of students and teachers.
Marva Collins was born on August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama. Much of her education was conducted in a town with segregated schools and limited resources for the town’s African-American residents. Collins persevered and attended Clark College (Clark Atlanta University) but returned back home to Alabama following her graduation.
She worked in Alabama’s school system for two years before relocating to Chicago and working in the city’s public school system for 14 years. However, her tenure with Chicago’s public school system ended with the creation of the Westside Preparatory School. Collins grew frustrated with Chicago Public Schools’ low standards in place and created her own preparatory school in 1975.
The Westside Preparatory School began in Collins’ home and served students who had been labeled problematic or learning disabled. The first students included her son, daughter and other children from their neighborhood. Under the instruction of Collins, the students were able to surpass all expectations and by the end of the first year, all of her students were scoring higher on standardized tests.
Collins believed that the key to student success was through instilling self-worth and convincing children that they were born to succeed. Students would typically begin their day by reciting a creed that included 22 verses on positive thinking, responsibility, and achievement. Her methods also stressed the need to teach phonics, reading, English, math, and classic literature (such as Plato and Homer).
With the success of her prep school, Collins was propelled to national recognition. She was even offered a position in the Ronald Reagan Administration as the Secretary of Education but declined the offer to continue working at Westside Prep. However, after 20 years of leading the prep school, she returned to Chicago’s Public School System to help improve some of the underperforming schools.
Collins was successful in her efforts and helped to train more than 100,000 educators on her approach. She received more than 40 honorary degrees and was even named a Legendary Women of the World in 1982. Her story was also told through the film, The Marva Collins Story (1981), which starred Cicely Tyson.
Marva Collins died on June 24, 2015, in South Carolina.