Marva Collins, teacher extraordinary, lives here on West Adams Street in a browstone, a few broken bottles from a vacant lot covered with bricks and garbage, houses with doors hanging off the hinges and ragged children running the streets, begging change.
This is the same Marva Collins who was the hero of a "60 Minutes" television show. The same Marva Collins whom producers paid $100,000 for the story of the successfull slum school she started so Cicely Tyson could play her in a TV special set for the fall. This is the Marva ycollins who has been offered and has rejected the job of supeintendent of the Los Angeles public schools, said no to the request that she be head of the Chicago school board and turned down an offer of $1 million to start her own chain of Marva Collins schools.
"I've lived in this neighborhood 21 years by choice," Collins, a bean-thin woman over six feet tall, says between the repeated buzzings of the doorbell by small children who want to know if they can work for a dollar and, if not that, then borrow a piece of bread.
"I want to live here," she says. "This is where I come from and where I belong. I take the bus, too. I am one of the few positive things around here, and I want to be here all the time. I'm not running to the suburbs like most black teachers."
This Chicago neighborhood West Garfield Park -- is where Marva Collins started a private school five years ago, West Side Preparatory, that has proved wrong all the public school teachers and principals who say poor black children in crowded city neighborhoods can't be expected to learn. Collins dismantled all the excuses for school failures by taking 18 children the Chicago public schools had discarded as being retarded, troublesome and truant and bringing them above national test standards in reading and math. And she did it with no public money.
Now Collins is famous, and the school is no longer on the top floor of her house. It has moved three blocks to an old office building on West Madison Street, this ghetto's main street, complete with iron gates covering every storefront and a huge broken clock, stuck at a quarter of 12, which hangs over a major intersection and seems to say that this whole section of town is broken down.
Upstairs in the old building, across from the broken clock, Marva Collins is working. Her school has grown from one teacher and 18 students to six teachers and 200 children in grades kindergarten through sixth. The walls are layered with grade "A" student papers.
"I've had teachers and school officials from all over the world and every state in the nation come visit me looking for the answer to how I teach these children. It is as though I had some trick or instant soup -- you know, you just add water and it's all there," says Collins. "They have even stolen the papers off the walls as if there were some secret in them.
"There's no secret to it," she says. "I believe in two-by-four teaching: the two covers of the book and the four walls. That and some strong legs to hold me up all day is all I need to stay right on top of these children. . . . If they say 'tham,' I'm right there to say 'them,' spell it and pronounce it for them. There is none of this 'come to me if you need help' like in the public schools. How do you they know if they need help?"
Collins in a taskmaster, keeping a grim, even angry face as she patrols her classroom, stopping to drill one child in vocabulary, then snapping out surprise questions to other children.
"I've seen where people write that Mrs. Collins is a miracle worker for getting us to learn," says Erica McCoy, a sixth grader who was put out of Catholic school for misbehaving. "That's not true. Mrs. Collins just works hard."
This day starts with math for all 37 students in Collins' class. They go over question on a mimeographed sheet as Collins walks between the cramped desks. She looks over shoulders, asks questions, sometimes stops the whole class to do a problem at the board. After an hour of math, half of the class begins to read an English textbook quietly for 30 minutes while the other half reads aloud stories that Collins has mimeographed, and then they answer questions about the story.If a child has a problem reading a word, Collins has him say it by syllables. If the child still can't get the word, Collins will write it on the board the way the child mistakenly said it. When the class has the word properly pronounced, they go on to its definition and then its derivation. When the half-hour is done, the other half of the class begins working on the mimeographed stories while the first group switches to the English textbooks.
Then there is an hour of spelling tests and quizzes; an hour of dication; an hours of vocabulary, and finally a little time for Latin and a discussion of current events in which Collins keeps asking the children to say what they think -- to make a judgment.
Collins' students react to her and the work before them as challenges. They are going to prove that they can do it. They are going to show the world that they should never have been underestimated. So Collins' question are answered in rapid fire. Two students answer a question, racing to see who can get the answer out first. The classroom is electric with the energy of a crusade. Some newcomers to the class bristle at the atmosphere and require private work with Collins before school to become adusted. As a result, she plans to stop taking new students in the upper grades next year. But most students respond to Collins as if in the woman and her class they have found their life's purpose -- someone treats them as serious intellects.
All the while Collins is on her feet, roaming the room, prodding students, demanding full attention and silence, stroking students one minute, glaring at them the next. "You only know one-half the answer," she once said to a student. "I tell you what. I'll tell your mother to give you only half your dinner."
"I don't talk down to them," says Collins. "I don't think of them as poor children, children with no fathers, no food, no money. I have a child here who has been to 14 other schools, and they all said she couldn't learn. When they come in here I say "Welcome to success. Say goodbye to failure. You are here to stay. You are going to learn. If I have to love you more then you love yourself. 'll do it. I'm not going to call your mother. I'm not going to call your father. There is no principal here. I'm too busy teaching. You are here to stay.'"
Collins, who quit her job as a public school teacher after 14 years and cashed in her $5,000 pension to buy books and desks to start her school, does all she can to avoid sending her sixth-grade graduates back to public schools. She tells stories of teachers in public schools coming school stoned on marijuana and teachers telling her that black children can't learn. She says most public school teachers she knew couldn't speak well or spell words correctly themselves. Collins is not only hard on public school teachers: she fired two from her own school this year.
To keep her students away from public school teachers, Collins is now searching for a building to buy so she can start her own junior high school. Her plan is to have a kindergarten-through-12th-grade school in the next five years.
Parents seem to agree that Collins West Side Prep is better than other school: "I send [Erica] here because this is the best education a black man can get for his child in this city," said Eliza Winter, a post office worker, as he brought his 5-year-old to the school. He pays $125 a month in tuition.
"Compared to public schools, it is like night and day," says Winter. "Erica can read. My two others couldn't read when they had been in public school for a few years. She's more outgoing. She is more aware of the situation in the world."
Collins says she would not send her students back to public schools even if busing helped to get them into the best Chicago has to offer. "I'm not in favor of busing," she says. "I want them to stay right here. There is a lot of building and work to be done right in this neighborhood. I don't want them going to some neighborhood where they are not wanted. They are wanted here.
"My payoff will come when these children grow up and come back to live in this neighborhood," Collins says. "I could have gone to Los Angeles or Washington, but I don't think there are enough good people really doing the dirty work of education in the classroom with the children who need help. When these children finish school and come back they are going to make this neighborhood into something that people will be trying to get into not leave."