In my previous column I wrote that it is almost impossible to become a good, innovative teacher in today’s public schools. I base that statement on the experiences of one of America’s great teachers, Marva Collins, who tried to teach her students to read with intensive phonics in a public school in Chicago, and was finally forced to leave the system and create her own private school where she could teach in the one traditional way that produces high literacy as opposed to the public school way that produces functional illiteracy.
According to a Wikipedia biography, Collins was born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1936. She graduated from Clark College (now known as Clark Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia. She taught school for two years in Alabama, then moved to Chicago, where she taught in public schools for 14 years. Frustrated by the dumbed-down curriculum in the public school, she decided in 1975 to create her own private school, Westside Preparatory School, which became a great educational success. At the school, located in Garfield Park, an impoverished neighborhood in Chicago, Collins applied classical education successfully with students from poor families, many of whom had been labeled learning disabled by the public schools. She once wrote, "I have discovered few learning disabled students in my three decades of teaching. I have, however, discovered many, many victims of teaching inabilities."
Westside Preparatory was so successful in turning out well-educated students that in 1981 its story was made into a movie, The Marva Collins Story, starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman. Even President Ronald Reagan considered her as a possible secretary of education. In 1996 she began supervising three Chicago public schools that had been placed on probation. In 2004 she received a National Humanities Medal, among many awards for her teaching and efforts at school reform. Marva and her school were also the subject of a 60 Minutes interview, which questioned the adult graduates of the school and reported that they were all successful in their careers due to the kind of education they got at Westside Prep.
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Sam Blumenfeld (photo)