When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.—Wall poster at Westside Prep
Fourteen years of teaching in an inner-city grade school had left Marva Collins with a sour taste. She found herself increasingly frustrated by a system in which children “came in and went back out without learning a thing.” What her young students needed above all, she believed—and still believes—was a solid command of reading and writing skills. So in 1975 Marva Collins quit her job and, in a manner of speaking, got busy making lemonade.
The result is the Westside Preparatory School, a unique, “down to basics” institution situated in the heart of one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods. Collins launched Westside virtually on a shoestring. She had $5,000 from her teacher’s retirement fund plus determination and husband Clarence’s fond support. They made a classroom on the second floor of the 60-year-old brownstone they own, bought a blackboard and chalk and rescued old textbooks from trash bins. Starting in 1975 with six pupils, the school now has 28, ages 3 through 12. There’s a waiting list of 175 applicants.
In class the 38-year-old Marva never sits down. “Teaching should be walking from desk to desk giving encouragement and knowledge,” she says, adding with a smile, “I don’t let them fail because I don’t leave them alone long enough.” There are hugs, pats and praise but no mollycoddling. The 5-year-olds learn to read with Aesop’s Fables; the older children are assigned Shakespeare, Emerson, Longfellow, Goethe and Sophocles. Every pupil reads a book a week and follows up with an oral review and a written report.
Marva this year received the Watson Washburn Award from the Reading Reform Foundation. She is prouder still that three of her students have won Illinois State Young Authors’ Conference awards. She insists on correct grammar in class and discourages her youngsters from using street slang with the admonishment, “When we are bright, we behave that way.”
Marva’s teaching philosophy goes back to her own growing-up in Atmore, Ala., a town near Mobile that she says “dared blacks to be masters of their own fates.” The daughter of a businessman (funeral home and cattle), she attended a one-room grammar school where “the teachers were strict and strong, there was no foolishness.” After she had studied at three colleges in the South and in Chicago, she and Clarence, a machine operator, chose to live and raise three children in the city’s decaying West Garfield Park section. “These are great people who only need a chance,” Marva says. “Once a child learns to think, there will be no time for purse snatching.”
Most of her pupils come from single-parent welfare homes, and if they can’t afford the $80 monthly tuition, Marva absorbs the cost. When youngsters finish the sixth grade, she tries to place them in private schools, begging scholarships. The Westside school day lasts from 9 to 2:30 with no recess. (“You lose skills and time with recess,” she explains. “If the parents read their kids Chaucer at home, then they could have recess.”)
Nonetheless, the students want even more. Some have been known to show up at 6 a.m., while teacher is fixing breakfast for her family. Others hide in closets and bathrooms after school so as to stay a while longer. Marva’s concern for them extends even to their safety on the streets. At the end of the day she helps them into cars and calls out, “Bye. Is that door shut tight? I can’t afford to lose you. We have too far to go yet.”