Wanted: The child no one else wants. Preferably young, between 4 and 12. He must be black, hard to teach, considered a failure in regular public school with skills considerably below grade level. Places are limited.
Marva Collins, teacher extraordinary, thrives on just this kind of challenge. Her West Side Preparatory School is housed in the upstairs of her large, cluttered and continuously renovated home. The home stands in the heart of Chicago's West Side, where buildings loom windowless and gaping on abandoned lots and where gangs battle to control the turf.
That's on the outside. Inside the classroom, editions of Shakespeare, Thoreau, Emerson, Plato and Sophocles are mixed on book shelves. Students' essays and recent achievements are displayed, leaving little space for the paint on the wall to show through. Plants, thriving and green, grow everywhere. The neat rows of desks are about the only reminder of classroom tradition. The rest of the standard stuff simply got thrown out four years ago, the day Collins started her school.
During those years, educational miracles began taking place. "Freedom to me is education. Henry David Thoreau said to be awake is to be alive. Let him fall if he can't stand alone." Pretty fair thoughts for a student in high school. But Erika McCoy, author of those words, is 8 years old.
"If one person says something, that doesn't mean that you have to agree with him. Believe in yourself. Every heart vibrates to the iron string."
Cynthia Collins, Collins' daughter, wrote those words. She and her brother, Patrick, study with 24 other children in the school because Collins pulled them out of an affluent North Side private school.
"After all," Collins said, "if I believe in the value of this school, I should be able to put my own children here too."
Most of the students came to her reading far below their grade level, or not at all. Often they did not understand what they read. They came with a sense of frustration and failure; they were angry and sometimes mean, and they were tired of fighting gangs. Often, they saw themselves as being worthless.
"One youngster, he's so happy to be here," said Collins. "He does not have to fight gangs any more. He's a seventh-grader reading on a third-grade level. I'll need a year to help him catch up. But at least now his mind is at peace. He's not afraid to go out in the afternoons. He's far more motivated.
"I can't even close down the school at the end of the day. Several (students) just don't want to leave. They're even waiting outside the door by 7:30 a.m.; they can't wait to start."
These children, and so many others like them, changed because Collins keeps a stiff, no-recess, no-goofing-off schedule of academic work and discipline. She tests each new child, identifies his particular deficiencies and educational needs and prepares a program based around that child.
And then, it's back to the one-room schoolhouse, with three additional ingredients.
The first is a heavy dose of the classics, introduced to each child as a springboard for thought and analysis. Poor readers start with words and sentences, then grow to paragraphs and larger concepts. They drill, they repeat, they make mistakes.
Sometimes small mistakes are ignored so that emphasis can be on big errors before they become permanent. She introduces math concepts that are more regularly found in high school.
She makes these demands on her students because she believes in each child's capacity to learn. The child who is discouraged, who feels himself to be of little worth, will never learn, no matter how tough the discipline or individualized the program.
So Collins adds the second ingredient to her special formula: A healthy concept of self.
Each child in her class begins to hear a voice inside that says: "I am the brightest child in the whole wide world." It starts with moments of newly discovered success. It continues as Collins pays special attention to each student. It continues because Collins fills all her students with words nobody ever told them before.
She tells them that every man must be his own leader, and they believe her.
She tells them that progress begins with them, and they progress.
She tells them that when we love ourselves, we can give love, and then she touches and loves each one.
She tells them not to be angry at others who have more things. She helps them to see that they have within their own power the ability to achieve just as much. She tells them: "You are the only person inside of you, and if you need strength and fortitude to bear up under rough times, find it." They do.
They do because Collins is herself the third part of her own teaching formula. She would be the first to acknowledge that she is the major reason for the program's success. "This school works because of me," she said, with a deep sense of mission.
Collins is the children's role model. She brings to them each day the very embodiment of their future possibilities. The lady who "can't wait to get to class in the morning" is impatient because of the great fire and energy pushing her. As she advises her students to work each day as if it were the last on Earth, so does she.
"I can't help doing what I'm doing any more than I can help breathing," she said. "I weep for so many, for that black boy especially, who grows up with nothing. What do you do with a child already 16 or 17 with no thought in his head? Where is his future? I get so discouraged with Americans. Is it cheaper to have good schools or overcrowded, bad jails?
"I feel a strong identity with the black world, Everyone who could have helped has left here long ago. Heck, I've had all the junk Americans are so busy moving up for. That's not where it's at for me, now."
That "junk" Collins referred to was much more than most children are reared with. Her father was a hard-working go-getter who was an undertaker, cattle buyer and grocery store owner. The result was that he became far wealthier than most in their small Alabama town. Collins had her own pony and later the use of a large luxury car.
She went to Clark College, a private college. Yet she knew that many of her peers had to go to the state university because they did not have money.
Collins came to Chicago on a visit in 1959 and decided to stay. Packed into those 20 years is marriage, three children, a master's degree from Northwestern University and 14 years in Chicago's public schools.
"I've always loved teaching and learning. I've loved challenge. And after 14 years at Deland School, I knew I needed to leave. I ended up teaching children who didn't know who they were if they bumped into a brick wall. All school was doing was teaching them to run and chase. The children became victims.
"So I figured, "Accept what's there, Marva, or start your own game." "
That's exactly what Collins did. She didn't want to deal with bells or interruptions. She didn't want to share her teaching responsibilities with others because she feared they could not carry out her vision.
So she left and started her own school. She needed to be in control, to be more responsible for the children and their growth.
Collins is careful not to accept the title "rebel." She sees the term as meaning one who wants to revolutionize the system. "I do not wish to get angry about another's rules," she said. "I simply decided to create my own system. I have a right to do something I want to do. Progress begins with us."
Collins took her own advice seriously. She is an avid reader who fits in her reading time between weekends with her closely knit family and trips around the country giving educational workshops. It's the money earned in her workshops that helps her support the school. Those children whose parents cannot pay are accepted anyway.
She also is committed to the neighborhood.
"I don't believe busing is the answer to our educational problems. Kids have got to feel good about where they live and where they go to school. That's why I live here. It's by choice. If somebody offered to build a school for me, I'd say, "Great, only build it here." I'd welcome the chance to reach four times the students I do."