Top Teacher Gets Plea to Aid Compton
Nationally renowned Chicago teacher Marva Collins has confirmed that she is willing to open a local branch of her acclaimed Westside Preparatory School if community leaders make good on a promise of full financial support.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Collins, who will appear in Compton on Saturday to speak at the Double Rock Baptist Church. “It would be a private school . . . taking those children who are failing, that society and the system say will never achieve.”
With just such a group of seemingly unteachable students, Collins opened Westside Prep in 1975 and began working what her admirers have described as educational wonders. She used a disciplined approach to instill in her students a respect for themselves and a love for the classics, from Plato to Shakespeare and Chaucer to Tolstoy.
Today, Westside Prep is a thriving institution with six teachers, 244 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and a lengthy waiting list. And Collins’ success has been widely chronicled in the national press and in a made-for-television movie.
A similar school in Compton--where the public education system has been ailing for years--could help “turn the city around,” said William T. Dawson, a housing developer who is leading the drive to establish what would be Collins’ first branch.
“The notion is to have the community rise up and beseech her to do that, and the community is responding,” said Dawson, who is chairman of Seal Beach-based AFCOM, an acronym for Affordable Communities. Several Compton ministers, city officials and homeowners groups have already endorsed the effort, Dawson said.
“We (Dawson and his wife, Sonia (Sunny) Sonju) have accepted the responsibility for raising the dough and putting the deal together.”
Although details are still sketchy, Dawson explained, “What we hope to do is raise enough money both for a physical plant and for an endowment system so she (Collins) can quit making speeches (to raise money for school operations) and get back in the classroom.” Exactly how much money, Dawson said he doesn’t know. “I’d rather not guess, being an ex-banker . . . probably somewhere closer to $1-million than $100,000.”
But Dawson stressed that it would have to be enough to ensure that any student could attend Collins’ school. “It’s important to her and to us that the school not be restricted to kids who can afford the tuition,” which currently runs as much as $200 a month in the Chicago school.
The school building would be built on property within AFCOM’s SunnyCove housing development in west Compton, Dawson continued. AFCOM has already redeveloped 164 apartments in the area--"changing a ghetto into the best neighborhood in Compton"--and is in the midst of building 291 single-family homes, the businessman said.
Dawson acknowledged that, in part, “there’s a selfish reason” for his involvement. The Collins branch school “would be an attractive feature to our homeowners, and if our homeowners are happy (then) we’re happy.” But he adds that, “We really don’t need to do this to sell houses.”
“Sunny and I are trying to put something back into the community,” Dawson said.
If all goes well, Dawson said, the school could be opened as early as September, 1986.
Two years ago this Thanksgiving holiday, Dawson said he and his wife first visited Westside Prep and met Collins, a vibrant mother of two who had become disillusioned with the Chicago public school system after working in it for 14 years.
“What we’re striving for is excellence in education, which is what we think Marva personifies,” said Dawson. “She’s teaching kids in the ghetto to read and understand Plato . . . She’s training future leaders of America, which we thought would be a pretty nifty contribution to Compton.”
When Dawson suggested that Collins open a Compton school, Collins said it sounded like any of a dozen similar requests she receives each year from communities around the country.
Relies on ‘Good Faith’
“I really wasn’t very impressed,” Collins recalled, adding that she must always be wary “that I’m not being used because of the notoriety I have.” But over time, Dawson displayed a “consistency” of interest that showed he was serious. “I’m really going on good faith that Bill Dawson is sincere,” the teacher said.
Several months after that meeting, Collins said Dawson returned to Chicago with Compton Mayor Walter R. Tucker.
“Any way that we can help ourselves, I’m for. She’s a very distinguished educator,” the mayor said, although the move to bring Collins to Compton is “still in the public relations and programing stage.”
Tucker has proclaimed Saturday as “Marva Collins Day,” and will host a private reception at his home for her on Sunday. (Collins’ church address, at 11 a.m. Saturday, is free to the public. But the educator is also scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Friday as part of Santa Ana’s Great American Talk Festival, at the Santa Ana High School auditorium, 520 W. Walnut St. Admission there is $5.)
“I’ve really refused to be involved in the fund raising” for the Compton school, Collins said. From the start, she said she told Dawson that “I will give you the kind of school we have, but we’ll have to have someone pay the bills.”
Collins said she would set up the school, train the teachers and perhaps “spend a month or two there” making sure things worked smoothly. Then she would return to Chicago and make periodic trips back to monitor Compton’s progress.
Collins acknowledged that some public school officials have repeatedly been critical of her claims of success, contending that she carefully screens her students rather than taking in actual dropouts. For the most part, she declined to respond beyond suggesting that the criticism was just professional jealousy. She noted that 20 of her first students have been graduated from high school and one of her own children is now a sophomore at Loyola University.
All of her students learned to view college as not an option, but a future goal, Collins said. “That’s all they talk about in (her current) fourth grade.”
Proud that her school is independent and nonprofit, Collins has refused to seek or accept (with one past exception) any federal money. She said she spurns it not only for philosophical reasons but because “I can’t stand having to keep records and all that.”
And, she emphasized, “No one can ever say I’ve taken federal funds and misappropriated them.”
So to keep Westside Prep financial solvent, Collins travels the lecture circuit about 14 times a month. “I can get up to $10,000 for a personal appearance but that goes back to the school.” However, the pace is so punishing that “sometimes I’m just exhausted.” Which is why she doesn’t want to have to raise even more money for a branch in Compton.
But Collins said she might accept some kind of government grant “as long as they (Dawson and his supporters) are going to be responsible for them.”
Dawson said he also doesn’t want to “raise any dollars that would have any strings attached to them.” But he added that, knowning the Reagan Administration’s inclination to help foster private participation in public-interest projects, “One might speculate that there could be help in that direction, but we haven’t explored it.”
In any event, Collins concluded that it may be too early to say much more about the prospect of her opening a school in Compton. “I’ve learned not to get excited until it happens,” Collins said.
But “You can say that I’m looking forward to it happening.”