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Chicago Educator Extends Her Classroom to Compton

July 16, 1987|GARY LIBMAN

Marva Collins, the woman who transformed supposedly uneducable minority children into classroom overachievers, dreams of a city that will have the best school in the country. That city is Compton.

"When we begin to think of Compton a year, two years from now, people will no longer say, 'Compton, where is that?' They'll say, 'Oh, that's where the best school in the world is. . . .' " said the Chicago educator, who plans to open a school in Compton in September, 1988, modeled on her famous Westside Preparatory School.

Speaking to 100 people on a green lawn at Compton College during a recent fund-raising lunch for the school, the slender, 6-foot teacher in a flowing black-and-white dress declared passionately: "I believe Compton is going to be the beginning of schools like this established in every community. . . . Compton will no longer be a local community. It will be an international community."

Such plans from other teachers might be pooh-poohed. But Collins has a history of doing the impossible.

In 1975, after 14 years of teaching, Collins decided that the Chicago public schools were educating children insufficiently. So she quit, took her family's life savings of $5,000 and started a private school in inner city Garfield Park

The school accepted students from preschool through eighth grade. Within a short time, 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds were reading at third and fourth grade levels and seventh-graders and eighth-graders tested at high school levels or took college courses for credit.

"First you have to build a student's self-esteem," she said in explaining her methods, "and then to convince them that education is necessary and to want it."

" . . . They have to be dissatisfied with their plight where they are a leaner on society and not a contributor. Many of our children don't realize the state they're in. They know they're poor but they think they must be poor the rest of their lives. They will tell me that we can't speak the way you do, read the way you do.

"We start with things like Emerson's 'Self Reliance' to believe your own thoughts. (We tell them) that Abraham Lincoln was 14 and hadn't learned to read. We deal with things like Dick Whittington, who only had a cat and he turned the cat into a fortune. . . . We show them through the curriculum" what they can achieve.

Her school includes an academy that has trained 2,300 teachers because, she said, teachers who believe children can learn are the foundation of her system.

"I think the same kind of education that's good for the sons and daughters of Harvard and Yale graduates is also the kind that's good for all children," she said.

"I think our expectations are very, very low for children. I believe they can understand anything that we're willing to teach them. Of course they don't understand if we go on the assumption this is too difficult for them."

Study Without Recess

Once the children believe in themselves and want to learn, Collins said they study all day without recess at her school, taking their lunch breaks at their desks.

Collins thinks she can make the same gains in Compton, where conditions at public schools were severely criticized last May by Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Assn., the nation's largest teacher's union.

Futrell said that during a visit to the financially strapped Compton schools she was "absolutely appalled" to find leaking ceilings, broken windows, filthy bathrooms, bird droppings on classroom floors and no fire extinguishers. She called the conditions "horrible" for students and teachers.

Collins, in the interview, said she did not want to criticize public schools.

"Somehow people get the idea that I'm out to destroy public schools. That is ridiculous. I'd like to see a marriage between public and private schools. There's enough blight and failure for both of us (to correct). . . . The statistics say the schools are failing. The streets say the schools are failing. The products say the schools are failing. Who is Marva Collins? I don't need to say that. It's very obvious."

Nevertheless, Collins vaulted to prominence in the late '70s after reporters found differences in the achievements of her students and those of Chicago public school students. "60 Minutes" devoted a segment to the school, Cicely Tyson starred in a television movie about Collins' life and a major publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co., distributed her biography.

She turned down proposals to become secretary of education and superintendent of Los Angeles County schools as well as a $1-million offer from a Chicago businessman to re-create 100 of her schools.

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