August 31, 1936 – June 24, 2015
Marva Delores Knight was born in Monroeville, Alabama to Bessie Nettles and Henry Knight. Knight grew up about 40 miles south of her birthplace in Atmore, Alabama. Despite growing up in the segregated South, Knight had two advantages. First, her father was an entrepreneur who generated revenue as a grocery store owner, cattleman, and undertaker. Second, the local Black community resisted segregation by providing support for its people.
Knight’s father’s varied business endeavors made him one of the wealthiest Black men in their town. He had high expectations for Knight and her siblings and stressed the importance of an education. Henry set aside time every evening to read with Knight. This extra push from her father helped Knight overcome the intentional lack of resources for local Black children. At Bethlehem Academy local teachers took a vested interest in the education of Knight and other students, adding to the expectation of excellence.
For college, Knight enrolled at Atlanta’s Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University). She studied secretarial sciences intending to become a secretary. However following graduation, Knight was unable to find a job due to companies not being interested in hiring Black secretaries. Undeterred, Knight went home to Alabama in 1957 and spent the next two years teaching secretarial skills at the Monroe County Training School.
In 1959, Knight relocated to Chicago, Illinois, and found work as a medical secretary. She met and married Clarence Collins and their marriage produced three children. During her years teaching in Alabama, Collins realized that she enjoyed teaching, especially Black students. In Chicago, Collins began to long for a return to teaching in a classroom. Collins became a substitute teacher which started her on the path to spending 14 years as a public school teacher.
She didn’t have the proper certification to teach but desperation due to a teacher shortage helped her secure a position. Her lack of formal training became an asset as it allowed Collins to approach teaching from a fresh perspective. Collins rejected the standardized teaching methods and tools set forth by the local Board of Education that relied on drills.
Instead, Collins relied on her personal experience as a student and methods she’d learned in Alabama through trial and error. Rejecting simplistic picture books, she used phonics to teach reading. Lessons included literature and poetry as well as in-depth conversations about the content.
As in many other cities around America, Black communities in Chicago experienced a decline in the late 1960s. Once reasonably stable communities were devastated by the departure of middle-income families which often left behind only the poorest of residents. Resources which included budgets, teachers, and staff were dispersed elsewhere. Collins lived in Garfield Park and witnessed its decline.
By 1975 Collins had grown frustrated with the bureaucracy and complacency of working within the school system and resigned. She took $5,000 from her pension account and established the Westside Preparatory School. At the school’s core was a mission to support and educate Black students. Collins felt it was important to not just educate students but to encourage and build their confidence in themselves.
Many of the students that Collins taught had been written off as learning disabled and/or having behavioral problems. Yet, Collins found that the problem was teachers and administrators who didn’t care and had low expectations for the students. While most of these children were poor and/or Black, Collins believed that they were as intelligent and capable of excellence as any other children. Thus she challenged them academically and held them to high standards.
Westside Prep launched with four students, which included Collins’ daughter, but quickly grew to 200 students. Collins used trial and error to refine the school’s model and teaching methods. Within the first year, many of the students who had been underperforming showed vast improvement and were performing up to standard, if not above the baseline educational level.
In time, some of Collins’ students would go on to attend Ivy League schools and other prestigious universities. Her success with educating these previously disregarded children brought media attention and countless awards. Collins was featured on 60 Minutes and portrayed by Cicely Tyson in a 1981 made-for-TV movie. She was twice offered the position of Secretary of Education but declined to remain focused on educating individual children.
The 1990s would see Collins continuing to operate Westside Prep. But she also began educating teachers on her teaching methods, educating as many as 1,000 per year. In 1996, Chicago called upon Collins to take administrative control of several underperforming schools.
Collins’ husband passed away in 1995 and she later retired to South Carolina leaving Westside Prep in the care of her daughter. Tuition had increased while annual enrollment decreased leading to the school’s closure in 2008. In 2004, Collins was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Marva Collins died on June 24, 2015, at the age of 78 from natural causes.
- Biondi, Carrie-Ann. 2021. “Marva Collins, Her Method, and Her ‘Philosophy for Living.’” The Objective Standard. February 5, 2021. https://theobjectivestandard.com/2018/08/marva-collins-her-method-and-her-philosophy-for-living/.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ed. 2023. “Marva Collins.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 27, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marva-Collins.
- Christian, June. 2015. “The Genius of Marva Collins.” Learning for Justice. June 29, 2015. https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/the-genius-of-marva-collins.
- Lawson Bush, Nana. 2020. “Marva Collins (1936-2015) .” Blackpast.Org. June 9, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/collins-marva-1936/.
- “Marva Collins, Black Educator Hall of Fame.” 2021. Philly’s 7th Ward. February 27, 2021. https://phillys7thward.org/2021/02/marva-collins-black-educator-hall-of-fame/.
- “Marva Collins.” n.d. The National Endowment for the Humanities. Accessed September 6, 2023. https://www.neh.gov/about/awards/national-humanities-medals/marva-collins.
- “Marva Collins’s Biography.” 2000. The HistoryMakers. February 2, 2000. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/marva-collins-40.
- “Marvelous Marva Collins Revolutionary Black Educators Feature.” 2022. Center for Black Educator Development. March 21, 2022. https://www.thecenterblacked.org/new-blog/marvelous-marva-collins-revolutionary-black-educators-feature.
- Roberts, Sam. 2015. “Marva Collins, Educator Who Aimed High for Poor, Black Students, Dies at 78.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. June 28, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/29/us/marva-collins-78-no-nonsense-educator-and-activist-dies.html.
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