Sept. 1, 1975
School teacher Marva Collins took $5,000 from her retirement fund and opened the low-cost Westside Preparatory School on the second floor of her home in Chicago. She started with four students, including her own daughter, and began welcoming students that others had labeled “unteachable.” Her success led newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times and the Washington Post to write about her.
“In the one room that is Westside Prep, 30 children from 4 to 14 years old sit side by side delving into the sciences, mathematics, literary classics,” the Post wrote. “A 5-year-old is engrossed in the Canterbury Tales. A 9-year-old gives Nietzsche a critical read. A 12-year-old ponders the intricacies of Rabelais. These are not the children of Chicago’s intellectual elite. Most are fresh off the streets of one of the city’s toughest, predominantly black ghettos, and many of them couldn’t even read before Marva Collins got her hands on them.”
Many of her students went on to graduate from Ivy League schools. “Kids don’t fail,” she declared. “Teachers fail, school systems fail. The people who teach children that they are failures — they are the problem.”
In 1981, CBS aired a made-for-TV movie about her life, starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman. Within a decade, she was training 1,000 teachers a year on her methods of helping students to love to learn and to think critically. She remained an inspirational figure, appearing in Prince’s video, “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.”
After George H.W. Bush was elected president, he asked her to become Secretary of Education. She declined the offer, preferring to continue to influence the lives of students, one by one. In 2004, she received a National Humanities Award. She died in 2015.