These are difficult times at West Side Prep. The "miracle worker" has come under attack.
Marva Collins' success in the classroom, educating kids from the ghetto, has been chronicled in favorable news stories, a segment on "60 Minutes" in 1979 and a recent made-for-television movie starring Cicely Tyson.
But in the past few weeks, Collins' image as superteacher and miracle worker has been tarnished by allegations that she is not all that the media have made her out to be.
Some think that she has been unequipped to handle the success that accompanied national publicity. Harvey Gross, a Collins booster who is admissions director of a nearby private high school, said, "I do believe that Marva Collins is an outstanding teacher. She's not, however, a miracle worker. That impression was created by the media, perhaps with her as a willing partner."
Others suggest that her story was a hoax from the beginning, swallowed by an unskeptical press looking for good news in the ghetto.
It was clear from the early stories that the media were hungry for her kind of success story. And as the attention grew, so did her school.
From a one-room private school in her home with 18 students in 1975, West Side Preparatory School has expanded to 244 students taught in adjoining buildings once owned by the Perfection Piano Co.
The other side of the Marva Collins story began to come out last month in stories by George Schmidt, a laid-off public-school teacher, and Renee Ferguson, a local television reporter.
Collins appeared on the Phil Donahue television show twice in an attempt to rebut the charges. An attorney, Gerald Peterson, accompanied her on the second Donahue show and said, "The issue is whether West Side Prep is being used as a political football by the left and the right."
Collins had become a darling of the New Right, especially when she denounced federal aid for her school. But Schmidt uncovered records that show she received thousands in federal job training money.
"She's one of the great success stories of CETA," said Jack Wuest, her grant administrator. He added that Collins had to have known the money was from the federal government. She says she didn't know.
Collins antagonized others when they learned she had described her West Side neighbors during a speech at Princeton as "not far removed from that early cave man that climbed from a slimy lagoon."
Several disgruntled parents told Ferguson they had taken their children out of Collins' school because they felt they weren't getting their money's worth. Tuition and fees run nearly $2,000 a year.
But some were more concerned about being deceived. They said Collins had lied about her credentials by saying she had a Master's degree in education from Northwestern University. Collins, who has a BA degree from Clark College in Atlanta, denies that she had made any such claim. She said someone had stolen and doctored her resume.
Perhaps the most serious questions are about the evidence on which she built her reputation: claims that her students took rigorous standardized tests with phenomenal results.
The early stories of her success, in the Chicago Sun-Times and Time magazine in 1977, referred to high scores on batteries of Iowa and Stanford achievement tests. When the television movie aired in December, the Sun-Times distributed 200,000 copies of the script to the public schools. The copies included a synopsis saying: "After just one year under Marva Collins' tutelage, every one of her students tested at least five grades higher."
There seems to be little evidence to back up such pronouncements.
Civia Tamarkin, author of a new book titled "Marva Collins' Children," says the emphasis on test scores has been overblown. "Test scores are the least important," she said. "Her forte is positive reinforcement. . . . She's a terrific motivator. She inspires the children."
When asked about tests, Collins refers reporters to Gross, admissions director at nearby Providence-St. Mel High School. He didn't begin testing Collins' students until 1979 and then tested only those she sent.
He has tested 11 of her students more than once and said they average about a 1.3-grade-level increase in reading over one year. They advance 1.2 grade levels in language--which includes spelling, grammar, and punctuation--and 0.7 years in math, Gross said.
That's above average in reading and language, but hardly the jumps that appeared in media accounts.
The achievement of West Side Prep alumni is mixed, at best. Gross said six of Collins' graduates had attended his school. One moved, two flunked out and the remaining three are "C" students, he said.
Tamarkin recalls that one of Collins' graduates is taking advanced math and science at an area high school. Lester Gaines, a guidance coordinator for the city public schools, said he tested five or six West Side Prep students last spring for admission to prestigious Lane Technical High School. None passed.
Collins' testing methods also have been challenged.
Patricia Jurgens, who taught at Westside Prep until resigning in December, said in a recent telephone interview that Collins tested the school's students herself last May but refused to send the standardized California test to the company for machine grading. Collins acted, Jurgens said, after having the tests graded at the school and learning that half her class had flunked.
It is not uncommon for schools to grade their own tests. Collins at first said it was Jurgens who hadn't sent the tests in and then added, "All schools grade their tests. We never send them back."
Questions also have been raised about the results of a highly publicized program Collins ran last summer for the Cabrini-Green housing project, where Mayor Jane Byrne lived for a short time. Press accounts said that test scores for the students in the program had jumped three or four grades over the summer.
Gaines said city officials asked him last month to interpret the test results from Cabrini-Green. "I couldn't because there was just a list of names and numbers, no answer sheets, no sign of what test was used," he said.
Collins said she used a "city achievement test" that she developed with the late principal of her old public school. She preferred to talk about the letters she had from parents praising the improvement in their children.
"I don't defend what I do," she said. "If there's anyone in the country who wants to test my children, bring them here."
Collins is a tall striking woman who patrols her classroom--38 children from 7 to 14 years of age--with flashing eyes. She admits that the sniping has taken a toll. Her critics "are being paid by someone," she charged, but refused to elaborate. She said she had considered suing her attackers, but decided "I can't be in the courtroom and the classroom at the same time."
Her main concern is the effect on her students, she said.
"This has been a haven for low achievers," she told a visitor during a lunch break last week. "I may have to get rid of them. I may have to take only children who are superbright.
"My best defense is what I do," she added. "These children can read. . . . Bring me a child and leave him for a month and I'll give them a reading child." Most parents at West Side agree. Robert Wells, head of the parents' association, said his 11-year-old son is in his second year at the school and "we have not regretted it. We see the stimulation, the motivation. I'm afraid to open my mouth around the house anymore. He'll correct me."
Pat DeBonnett, who has three children at West Side, said the controversy over testing didn't bother her. "The day-to-day accomplishments mean more than tests," she said, adding that she has seen "a renewed enthusiasm for learning" among her children.
Gross, of Providence-St. Mel, agreed. The writing samples of West Side Prep students "are full of optimism," he said. "These kids want to be president of the United States, to help humanity."
Some of those who left still wish Collins well, but several say they think their children weren't getting a rounded education.
Wayne Teague, superintendent of schools for the state of Alabama, visited West Side Prep last Thursday with some aides and came away unimpressed. "I didn't see anything that would help the Alabama public schools," he said.
Willie Anderson had three children at West Side Prep until he moved to Alabama last June. Son Michael, 13, has been told by his public-school teacher he may have to repeat some math and history courses because his background is inadequate, Anderson said.
"She didn't really teach math, science and history," he said. "They might have built her up too high. The source of the blame lies at CBS." The network produces "60 Minutes" and aired the movie about Collins. "They should have had the ability and talent to do their homework before putting her out there.
"We don't want to put the blame on her," he continued, "but we're somewhat disappointed. Marva has made some mistakes. We hope she weathers the storm. We want her to take a hard look at her operation and correct it."
Gwen Smith, a single parent who had two children at West Side, said she became concerned when her daughter kept getting As from another teacher at the school on themes that made no sense and were filled with spelling and punctuation errors.
Some of the A+ themes that share wall space with glowing press reports at West Side contain complicated, multisyllable words, and uncorrected, basic spelling errors. Author Tamarkin said she had noticed this, too, but learned Collins was emphasizing praise to boost self-confidence first.
Smith pulled her daughter out of West Side last fall after three months. She is now getting extra help in a public school. "They said she had fallen back instead of gaining," Smith said. "I don't want to stab the lady in the back. But I was blind to a lot of things."
Lois Crawford moved her daughter from a mostly white Lutheran school to Collins' house in 1977 because "I wanted her to know blacks as authority figures." She left, though, because she felt her child wasn't getting a rounded education.
Sharon Tindall said she was enthusiastic about having her 4-year-old daughter learn from "a black woman who was really doing something," but was disappointed.
"Maybe the school was okay when it was small," she said. "Now it's one big mess. I'm not saying she can't teach. But she deceived us. She said she had a Master's in business education. We didn't ask questions. We took her word."
Collins says, "I don't care if 99,000 people say I'm wrong. I'm going to do what I do."