Builder Drops Plan for Marva Collins School

Times Staff Writer

Plans to have Marva Collins--the Chicago educator who turned supposedly uneducable children into young scholars--open a school in Compton have been abandoned by the housing developer who launched the effort five years ago.

"I've spent $100,000 and more than four years trying to make this thing work, and it just didn't," said developer William T. Dawson of Seal Beach, who sold Collins on the idea, promising to donate the site and raise all the money to operate the school.

"Maybe it was just too ambitious an idea financially for the community to support," said Dawson, chairman of AFCOM, an acronym that stands for affordable communities. The firm is completing a 410-home subdivision in Compton, a city of more than 90,000, which is predominantly black and Latino. The school, which Dawson at one point estimated would take $1 million to start, would have been adjacent to the subdivision.

"I feel terribly disappointed," Dawson said. "I put four years, forget the money, (of) emotional effort into trying to make it happen, and it didn't happen. That's always disappointing. It's like losing a race."

Foundations and donors that he approached outside Compton greeted the idea of a Collins school with enthusiasm, Dawson said. But they all wanted to see Compton make a financial show of support before they were willing to write checks, and the community did not respond, Dawson said.

"I don't know that there wasn't enough money" in Compton, Dawson said. "I know we just weren't able to do it."

Dawson and his wife-business partner, Sonia Sonju, promised Collins, whose story has been told in the national press and in a made-for-television movie, that she would not have to raise money for the Compton school, as she must do for her Chicago academy.

"I told him I would not worry about a penny," Collins said. "I told him I (would) not worry about a paper clip."

Collins, who was planning to come to Compton with a corps of teachers she trained at her Chicago school, Westside Prep, said she is considering the possibility of opening a school in Compton or, perhaps, in Watts, but that if she does, she will run it herself.

"If I start a school in Los Angeles or anywhere in the California area at all," she said, "it will be with my own money, the same way I started this school."

Collins stressed, however, that she is just exploring the possibility of a California school and has not made up her mind whether to open one here.

Lecture Tours

A fiercely independent personality, Collins prides herself on not accepting money from the federal or state government. Her school is supported largely by money she raised with her movie and still raises on lecture tours.

"I have just learned a very valuable lesson that too many cooks spoil the soup," Collins said of her Compton experience. "I have learned what I preach and what I tell the children: There are just no free rides."

Collins, a former public school teacher who became deeply disillusioned with Chicago's school system, is a legendary figure to blacks across the country, who cheered her outspoken refusal to accept that children from poverty-stricken, inner-city homes, who had been labled as uneducable, were unable to learn.

Collins said Dawson, whom she took pains not to criticize, was not the only one who lost money trying to open a school in Compton. Collins said she hired a duplicate set of teachers this year so they could be trained to teach at the Chicago school next year, while she and her original staff traveled to Compton to start the new school.

Sonju said the money she and her husband lost in their efforts to bring a school to the Compton area was spent on literature, promotional events and the hiring of fund raisers for the school, including Connie James, wife of Compton Councilman Floyd James.

She said they also paid a fee to Collins every time she came to California to speak on behalf of the project. Collins, who said she put the fees into her Chicago school treasury, came here about a dozen times, Sonju said.

Compton public school officials, Sonju said, were openly resentful of efforts to bring a Collins school to the city, and that resentment helped defeat the project. Compton School Supt. Ted Kimbrough, however, said he did not take a position on the school, although he did turn down an invitation to sit on its board of directors.

"It would not be appropriate for a public school superintendent to sit on a private school board," Kimbrough said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World