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Marva Collins, ‘a natural force’ in inner city education, dies at 78

In the late 1970s, former Sun-Times reporter Zay Smith opened a curious letter from a West Side teacher who felt compelled to respond to a story he’d just written that detailed how little a group of high school kids knew about Shakespeare.

It read: “My children know who Shakespeare is, and they can recite passages. Come visit us any time.”

Signed: Marva Collins.

Smith got the nod from his editor and headed to Garfield Park, where, tucked into the second floor of a row house, Mrs. Collins ran a school that was accomplishing things that were hard to believe.

“There were little four-year olds reading better than a lot of high school sophomores. All these little grade school kids,” Smith recalled.

Smith wrote about what he saw: a woman who — frustrated with Chicago Public Schools — left in order to teach her back-to-basics brand and was working wonders with children from the inner city.

Within months, Mrs. Collins was featured on “60 Minutes.” As her story grew, so did donations to her cause. Enough for Mrs. Collins to build a school, Westside Prep, in Garfield Park. The singer Prince visited Mrs. Collins, told her he wished he’d attended a school like hers, and gave her $500,000.

Educators from around country came to Chicago to learn her stripped down, back-to-basics teaching methods that challenged black inner city youths with advanced curriculum. President Ronald Reagan asked if she would be his secretary of education. She turned him down. A made-for-television movie about her life starred Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman.

Mrs. Collins died Wednesday in South Carolina where she was in hospice care. She was 78.

She’d say “All a teacher needs are books, a blackboard and pair of legs that will last through the day,” Smith recalled Thursday. “She was a natural force.”

When news broke in the early 1980s that Creighton University basketball player Kevin Ross had graduated, but was illiterate, he went to Mrs. Collins for help.

“Creighton boosters felt they failed me educationally and they wanted to help, so they gave me a choice: go to vocational school, or go to Marva Collins’ school,” Ross recalled Thursday.

“Being six foot nine and 23-years old and going back to grammar school, a lot of people, even my mama thought that would be embarrassing to me, but I felt I’d been living a lie for so many years that I wanted to be a full person and not a half person, and when I met Miss Collins and looked in her eye I felt that she really wanted to teach me,” he said.

“She got me from not being able to read to college level reading in 12 months. She didn’t play. She was a taskmaster. I had a girlfriend in town once and asked for a day off, and she said that if I wasn’t going to be in class by 8 a.m. the next day, don’t ever come back. I was there at 7:45,” said Ross, who lives in Kansas City. “Not only was she the best teacher in the world, she was my best friend also, and she will surely be missed.”

SUN-TIMES reporter Zay Smith (left) meets Jimmie Skaggs, Chicago actor who will play Smith’s role in movie “Welcome to Success: The Marva Collins Story.” Cicely Tyson (center) plays role of Marva Collins. File Photo.
SUN-TIMES reporter Zay Smith (left) meets Jimmie Skaggs, Chicago actor who will play Smith’s role in movie “Welcome to Success: The Marva Collins Story.” Cicely Tyson (center) plays role of Marva Collins. File Photo.

Mrs. Collins previously taught in the Chicago Public School system, but chafed under the bureaucracy and for being reprimanded for not following curriculum.

“She was proud of making a stand,” said her son, Eric Collins. “She was proud of being a rebel and establishing her own school.”

CPS was hesitant to recognize her success, Eric Collins said. “Their relationship was ‘I’ll work my side of the street, and you’ll work yours and we’ll wave at each other from time to time,” he said.

“She was one of the rare people who had a great gift. Like she was born to teach. And she really showed the world that a child’s economic status or where they lived had nothing to do with what they could accomplish,” Eric Collins said.

Collins’ Westside Prep closed in 2008 amid dwindling enrollment. She struggled for years to find donors and keep tuition low. At one point she even mortgaged her home.

“Her slogan: ‘I will not let you fail’ was really true,” Eric Collins said. “And she felt that just because you’re poor doesn’t mean I have to water it down or dumb it down, in fact it should be harder. She was constantly being asked by reporters ‘Why does an inner city grade school kid need to learn Socrates, Shakespeare or advanced math?’ And she would say ‘They are part of a larger world the children should aspire to.’ ”

Marva Collins in 1987. File Photo.
Marva Collins in 1987. File Photo.

Her former students, who represent a wide range of success stories, took to Facebook Thursday to lament their loss.

Mrs. Collins is also survived by her son, Patrick, and four grandchildren — one of whom graduated in 2011 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also had a daughter, Cynthia, who died in 2008.