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Awards & Honors: 2004 National Humanities Medalist

Marva Collins

"All children can learn," says educator Marva Collins. "For thirty years, we have done what other schools declare impossible," explains Collins, who has trained more than one hundred thousand teachers, principals, and administrators in the methodology developed and practiced at her Westside Preparatory School in Chicago. "I don't make excuses--I take responsibility. If children fail, it's about me, not them. I tell my students, if you think excellence is difficult, you don't want to try failure."

Collins says the critical element is instilling self-worth and convincing children that they are born to succeed. "Values can be replicated, excellence can be replicated, but it has to begin with the idea that everything is about me, not the other person, and about being proud of my work. Many parents are busy giving their children everything except a sense of self-esteem and self-worth."

Each morning, students begin with a recitation known as the creed-- twenty-two verses that stress positive thinking, responsibility, and achievement as individual choices. "We greet two hundred children every day, and each one tells us their plan for the day," says Collins. "They come to lunch and bring a topic they're going to discuss. Man is the only species born to be intellectual, but today's children can't discuss ideas. With my own children, at every dinner they were to bring a topic to the table."

Her own childhood in Atmore, Alabama, where segregation meant limited resources for black schools and no access to the public library, seems an unlikely training ground for an educator. For Collins, her father made the difference. He placed a high value on education, self-reliance, and achievement, and expected his children to succeed. "We were expected to be excellent," she says, "we didn't have a choice."

After graduating from Clark College in Atlanta with a concentration in secretarial skills, Collins returned to Alabama, where she taught school for two years. Moving to Chicago in 1959, Collins began working as a substitute teacher and eventually spent fourteen years teaching in the city's public school system. Disenchanted with the education her children received at private schools and her experiences in public schools, Collins opened the Westside Preparatory School in her inner-city Chicago home in 1975.

Collins's student body consisted of children labeled problem or learning disabled, but by the end of the first year every child had surpassed his or her expectations. Her steady success with students has brought national recognition, awards, honorary degrees, and a made-for-television movie about her life starring Cicely Tyson. President Reagan asked her to be secretary of education, but she declined in favor of staying at Westside. Collins continued spreading her methodology to public schools in Oklahoma, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Today, the staff of Westside Preparatory School includes her daughter Cynthia, who was five when the school began and is now the headmistress, and son Patrick, who conducts teacher-training seminars around the nation. No longer involved in the day-to-day functioning of the school, Collins devotes her time to lecturing and writing books on her methodology.

Collins believes that retraining teachers and shifting paradigms is essential to creating a more positive climate in the classroom. Her first question to teachers in seminars is "what's wrong with the children and parents?" To which she receives a litany of responses. Her next question is, "What's wrong with you as a teacher?"

The Collins methodology advocates a core curriculum that emphasizes phonics, reading, English, math, and classics. The students' reading list includes Sophocles, Homer, Plato, Chaucer, and Tolstoy--something Collins doesn't find extraordinary. "It's all about expectations," she says.

"I read at least twelve or thirteen books a week because I have a passion for excellence," Collins says. "I'll begin a nine-hundred-page book, and I won't stop until I finish it. When students finish their work in our school, they'll never say 'I'm done.' They'll pull out another book from their desk and continue to read."

All Westside Prep students go on to college, she says. "There are no dropouts, no substitute teachers, and when teachers are absent, the students teach themselves. We're an anomaly in a world of negatives. Our children are self-motivated, self-generating, self-propelled.

"To tell me 'can't' is very angering," Collins says. "When you believe in what you do and have a passion about what you do, it is easy. It's like climbing a beautiful mountain--it's difficult getting there, but it's beautiful once you're there."

By Janis Johnson