'Hard Work, Common Sense' : Famous Educator Gives Her Recipe for Excellence

"I've been called a miracle worker. Visitors from all over the world visit our school, constantly seeking magic. But there is no magic--simply common sense, hard work and a passion for excellence for our children," Marva Collins told her audience at the City of Santa Ana's Great American Talk Festival.

Collins' passion for educational excellence has taken her and her one-room school, Westside Preparatory School in inner-city Chicago, from virtual obscurity to national recognition as an exemplary school that has second-graders performing operettas and third-graders reading Chaucer and Emerson. After "60 Minutes" covered the "Marva miracle" in 1979, Westside quickly expanded from 30 pupils to 200, and Collins found herself a nationwide sensation, being asked by educators across the country to share her secrets for motivating children to read Shakespeare and Dante.

President Reagan has offered her the position of U.S. secretary of education--twice. She has declined those offers along with others, including a post as Los Angeles County superintendent of education and a highly lucrative offer from a publisher to mass-produce Marva Collins schools, Collins said.

"I have to be very patient with people sometimes when they ask me: 'Why did you turn down a million dollars to start 100 Marva Collins schools across the country?' " she said during her talk Friday night at Santa Ana High School Auditorium. "They need to realize that children are not like Big Macs--they have thoughts."

Collins, 49, was referring to another festival speaker when she pointed out: "John Naisbitt said in his book 'Megatrends' that this generation is the least educated of any generation. I think we need to stop and look at what we're doing wrong in public schools. They're the backbone of our society."

Mediocrity as Way of Life

"I find it very interesting," she noted, "that schools seem to be the only American institution where we accept mediocrity as a way of life. IBM and the corporations that are great in this country certainly do not accept mediocrity as a way of life."

It was the mediocrity Collins saw in the American school system that prompted her in 1975 to leave the Chicago public school system after 14 years of teaching at the elementary level and open Westside Prep in Chicago's predominantly black, poor West Side neighborhood. She started with six students in a room on the second floor of her home, where she continued to teach for five years, using secondhand desks and books.

Westside Prep--dedicated to teaching children the principles of hard work, common sense and determination to achieve goals--now occupies two buildings built with money from a made-for-television movie that starred Cicely Tyson as Collins. Eight teachers instruct 200 students in a comprehensive curriculum that includes Greek, Latin, math, economics, literature and logic. The teachers don't use audio-visual materials, which Collins views as "gimmicks."

There is no recess or gym at Westside. However, according to Collins, there are no discipline problems, either. "Everybody seems to worry about them going out for exercise except the children themselves," she said. "The only problem we have is getting them to go home in the afternoon after school."

Although Westside Prep started out as a neighborhood school for West Side black students whom Collins felt were being "scripted to fail," those children are no longer the school's only students. Due to its increasing popularity, Westside now teaches children from out-of-state suburban families that are not poor. Among those children is the Rev. Jesse Jackson's 10-year-old daughter.

$2,000-a-Year Tuition

In addition, 40 of the students take public buses daily from Cabrini Green, the crime-ridden housing development that gained national recognition when former Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne resided there. The tuition to Westside Prep (more than $2,000 a year per student) is paid for those children by Collins with money she earns from her lecture appearances. Those lectures also help provide subsidies for low-income students from the West Side neighborhood.

Students are admitted to Westside Prep on a first-come, first-served basis, and there's always a waiting list. According to Collins' personal assistant, Carol Braxton, the last time anyone looked, there were over 800 names on the waiting list. The students range in age from 3 to 16, and the school's educational goals stress reading and writing regardless of age. "Every 3-year-old must be at a first-grade reading level by Christmas," Collins said.

Other standard requirements for students include the reading of a classic every two weeks, memorizing a poem a week and writing an essay every day. In order to graduate from the eighth grade with "the Westside Prep stamp on them," students are required to attain reading, comprehension, vocabulary and math scores that are equivalent to 11th- and 12th-grade levels.

Classes at Westside Prep are exciting and impressive, according to Santa Ana Mayor Daniel E. Griset, who told Friday's audience of his recent visit to the Chicago school. During the question-and-answer period that followed Collins' talk, Griset and other audience members expressed a desire to have a school like Westside Prep in Santa Ana.

"If we can do it at Westside Preparatory School with the kind of children we've done it with," Collins replied, "it can be done anywhere."

'Great Expectations'

"We have great expectations for our students," she added. "We believe that the school must become a miniature society in which they learn the functions of real citizens in a real world." Consequently, not only do the students read Plato's "Republic," they also practice playing the stock market and read the Wall Street Journal.

Collins has high standards for West Prep's teachers as well. Her motto is: "Anything works if the teacher works." To achieve this end, she requires that teachers be caring, positive and enthusiastic about their work.

"Teachers have to realize that there's a certain tedium and boredom in their classrooms, and they certainly need to look at what they're doing," Collins said.

Commenting on the fact that parents aren't always grateful for a teachers' dedication to their children, Collins said teachers must care despite what parents may or may not do.

"Many times people say to me, 'You and your staff work so hard, and the parents are often ungrateful,' " she said. "But if we do everything we do for gratitude, then I wonder about our motivation in the first place."

Collins believes that parent involvement in a child's education can't be depended on. "I spend a lot of time trying to undo the failure-oriented thinking that some parents give their children," she explained. "Personally, I'd rather have the parent stay home and leave the child alone. I'll do the teaching if they'll just get the child to the school."

Kenneth Tye, chairman of the education department at Chapman College and one of two panelists who presided at the talk, disagreed with Collins' comment. "The research on parent involvement is really quite clear," he said. "Kids do better when parents are involved in their children's education. We need as schools to reach out and get them involved."

'An Ideal Situation'

Collins agreed with Tye but added: "That's an ideal situation; I think it's wonderful when parents are involved. But when they're not, I think we have to become doubly involved. We have to break that failure cycle somewhere."

Collins stresses that teachers must "become masters of what they do." She said many teachers don't teach well because they lack adequate training. "The people who certify teachers, who write the teacher textbooks and become the experts in our society have never taught a day in their lives," she said. "I'm really finding out teachers do not know how to teach."

Finding this discovery "disturbing," Collins recently started a teacher-training institute at Westside to allow teachers to observe and learn from the methods used at the school. Financed in part by a $500,000 gift from rock musician Prince and by tuition fees, each session runs one to two weeks.

Another project that Collins hopes to get under way soon is the opening of a school similar to Westside in Compton, although an audience member from Compton pointed out that there has been some opposition in the area to the private school project. According to Braxton, it was Collins who was approached by members of the Compton community about the possibility of starting a school there. Collins has agreed, Braxton said, to select staff and train teachers for the school. Community members are currently looking for a building suitable to house such a school, with hopes of opening in September.

Collins is no stranger to controversy. In 1982, she was charged by a public school teachers publication with exaggerating the progress of her pupils and misrepresenting her academic background, which, she says, consists of a business degree from Clark College in Atlanta.

These accusations have faded, however, and Westside continues to maintain a high reputation. Kenneth Tye's opening comments before Collins' talk seemed indicative of her present position in academic circles.

"As an educator I don't want to be drawn into a debate about the methodologies of her school," he said. "They work. And if they work, they're good enough for me."

Lectures Help Support School

Collins now spends much of her time lecturing to earn money for the school, as Westside Prep receives no federal grants. (The school operates on tuition and private donations as well as money earned through Collins' lectures.) Westside is now in its 10th year, and Collins, who serves as principal, hasn't taught on a daily basis for five years.

"I wanted to make sure that the school worked without me," Collins explained in an interview before her speech. "If the school only works with my teaching, then I have a real problem. It means that the skill is not transferable."

"I didn't hope for any of this," she reflected. "The real reason I started the school in the first place was because I was disgruntled with the kind of education my children were receiving."

This year Westside sent some of its older children to Europe. Collins said the experience was "mind-broadening" for the students, but she's upset by the fact that people constantly ask, "Who funded the trip?"

"I think it shows where we've come in this society," she said. "Who do they think is going to fund a trip to Europe? You fund it if you want to do it." (The money was raised by the students and their parents, she noted.)

"I think if I do nothing more with the children--if they never learn anything else--they've learned: 'If I want something in this world I have to work for it,' " she added. "Even a 4-year-old will tell you from reading 'The Little Red Hen' that if you don't work you won't eat. That's a theme in our school."

Still in Same House

Collins lives with her husband and three children--ages 16, 19 and 22--in the same house in which she first started Westside. Collins is bothered by "the fact that people think 'inferior' when they hear inner city. I've reared my own three children in the inner city," she said. "They have no police records and have actually done better than some of my suburban counterparts who have moved away."

Another label she finds irritating is being called "a miracle." "People mean well," she said. "But I'm so tired of hearing, 'It's a miracle.' It just says how many preconceived ideas we have about what these children are. A miracle is something that can't be explained. What we do is hard work. I think hard work can be explained."

Collins, who sees herself as a modern-day "Johnny Appleseed," has a strong desire to spread her ideas to help improve American schools. She fears that "if America doesn't immediately begin to restructure its educational system, it will lose its preeminent world position."

She cautioned Friday's audience that everyone should be concerned about education in America.

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