Chicago — She's as calm and cool as the eye of a storm. She is dressed to the teeth in billowy, white linen, drinks diet soda, and talks a mile a minute.
She's Marva Collins, and to many people she is the eye of an education controversy swirling up and out of Chicago and intriguing the nation for nearly half a decade.
Marva Collins, ex-public schoolteacher, now headmistress and founder of Chicago's private Westside Preparatory School, has won national attention with her ability to teach supposedly unteachable children - those students crowded into inner-city schools who year after year fall significantly below national educational standards. These are the ones upon whom Mrs. Collins has etched her mark as an educator.
Seven years ago, in the top floor of her inner-city brownstone, Mrs. Collins took 18 neighborhood children who were failing in the public schools or supposedly had learning disabilities and transformed them into students of Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Plato. Using an unorthodox blend of no-nonsense discipline and abundant praise - ''Good Morning, I love you,'' she says to her classes - Collins worked the same ''miracle'' each year. She was the driver of classical education into ghetto children who had failed in the public schools.
And the media loved it.
When the national press took hold of Collins back in 1977, they dubbed her a ''miracle teacher,'' who worked ''blackboard magic.'' They never let go.
During the next four years dozens of publications covered her school as the education story of the hour. In 1979, CBS-TV sent Morley Safer and the ''60 Minutes'' crew into Chicago's inner city to interview Collins, her students, and the happy parents. Here amidst the rubble and bleakness of Chicago's West Garfield Park, CBS found parents who were ecstatic over their childrens' progress under Collins's tutelage. As for the students, they were busy telling reporters that Dante's ''The Divine Comedy'' was their favorite book.
Two years later CBS sent in Cicely Tyson and the Hallmark Hall of Fame to do a made-for-TV movie, ''The Marva Collins Story.'' The ghetto teacher had become a media legend. The politicians weren't far behind. The City of Los Angeles wanted her to become superintendent of public schools. Someone offered her $1 million to open a string of Marva Collins schools across the country. Even President Reagan considered her for secretary of education.
But she wasn't interested in any of the offers. Her responsibility, she maintained, was first and foremost to her students. Even the six-figure fee she received from CBS for the rights to her story she channeled into a new building for her burgeoning school of 200-plus students.
Yet for all her highly heralded achievements, Collins also became a symbol for all that was wrong with urban public schools. Her outspoken criticism of ''bureaucratic red tape'' and ''apathetic'' public schoolteachers was widely reported. Her private successes became a reproach to public-school failures. The woman who had taken her pension savings and turned the top floor of her and her husband's house into a one-room school began to earn the envy and wrath of some public-school advocates.
Her fall from favor was sudden.
In February of this year, a group of Chicago public schoolteachers openly challenged Collins. In a two-part, copyrighted article, the teachers called the educator a ''hoax'' who was ''crippling public education.''
The teachers said that Collins misrepresented her credentials. They charged her with plagiarizing ideas for an opinion column she wrote, and criticized her for carefully selecting pupils rather than accepting true public-school dropouts. And the teachers charged that Collins had taken nearly $70,000 in federal money, despite her repeated disdain for public education funds.
But most significantly, the teachers challenged Collins to document her until-then-undisputed successes with some independent testing. To date, said the teachers, no test results had ever been made public to substantiate reports of the ''miracle improvements'' in student reading abilities - Collins's biggest claim to fame. The Marva Collins story, said the article, was a carefully constructed ''media event.''
Some disgruntled parents and a former Westside Prep teacher joined the rising chorus of critics who wondered aloud if the media had not indeed exaggerated Collins's achievements. Parents complained of undue pressure on students to acheive, and the former teacher asserted that a lot of ''brainwashing'' and coaching was taking the place of actual learning. Other observers suggested that with all her outside speaking engagements Collins was advancing her own fortune rather than those of her students. A Chicago-area television station recently aired a highly unfavorable 20-minute report attacking the educator and her school.
Still others leaped to her defense. Well-known Chicago columnist Mike Royko wrote an article criticizing the sloppy reporting of her detractors. The venerable Wall Street Journal ran a supportive opinion column applauding her achievements, which had come ''with little money and without the bureaucracy.'' The National Education Association has defended her as a ''master teacher'' who is no substitute for or threat to the public-school system. And institutions from the American Academy of Acheivement to the Urban League continue to bestow their honors upon the black educator.
As for Mrs. Collins, she refused to respond to her critics. Calling their charges ''red herrings,'' she lets her attorney handle all complaints. He denied most of them, but added that Collins received federal money totaling $69,000. He said that she had not realized the money came from federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funds.
Of late, the charges and counter-charges have become somewhat muffled. But now that the September school bells have tolled for yet another year of blackboard lessons, and now that a book about Marva Collins is to be published in October, the controversy may erupt again.
Collins seems unconcerned. In the weeks just preceding the new school year, she was far too busy catching up on her own summer reading (''reading books has taken me through some rough times'') and assembling half-inch-thick photocopies of John Milton's ''Areopagitica'' for use in her classrooms this fall. She is not easily deterred from her mission. People who know her well say she is a gifted teacher with incredible commitment. They also admit she can show signs of a short fuse and an abrasive personality. But her most immediate characteristic is unbounded self-confidence.
''You first have to begin with that initial step of feeling good about yourself,'' she explains in a vigorous voice unslowed by the traces of a Southern accent. ''That's why people asked me, 'Mrs. Collins, during that controversy, it never bothered you?' The children were just appalled. I had never missed a day from my lessons. I never discussed it. But you know who you are. You keep doing what you do. I have a job to do right here. I don't have time to get even.''
Somehow you believe this eldest daughter of an Alabama undertaker, perched on a tiny school desk sipping chicken soup out of a paper cup. She is radiantly tall and has a magnificent, commanding presence. She is beautifully dressed in summer-crisp, white linen. Chunky gold rings, earrings, and necklaces sit prominently on her hands and hang about her neck. Between spoonfuls of soup, she speaks in an almost stream-of-consciousness style with references to Shakespeare and Sophocles interspersed with sharp directives to her secretary and snatches of her philosphy of life, learning, and teaching. She is not above speaking in half-sentences, galloping from one topic to the next.
''To be human, and to realize we are learning every day. None of us has all the answers. That's why Socrates is such a favorite of mine, 'I know nothing.' I think every day we're born anew, and not to be afraid to make mistakes. And I say that to the children: It's the blank sheets of paper I worry about, not the errors.''
She is obviously not a woman to be trifled with. One wonders how schoolchildren could not be in awe of her. ''You're very, very special children, '' Mrs. Collins told second-graders during a summer education project at Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project last June. ''There will be no failing. You are here to succeed. I will not let you fail. A fool hopes, a genius creates. That's what you are going to do, create.''
Such an emphasis, she maintains, is precisely what is missing in schools today. ''We've gotten children out of schools who don't know how to think. Children are just choking on overdoses of ignorance. Just look at whatever comes out in America. Everybody's walking around with a polo player now. My children feel so sorry for me because I don't have any designer jeans. Everybody has to have this sense of belonging, but belonging to what? Is it really that necessary to be part of the group? Isn't it better to be alone for what you believe than to be a part of something that'll destroy you?''
The courage to think and act for oneself, despite peer pressure, despite cultural, economic, and ethnic disadvantages is what motivates Marva Collins, the woman and the teacher. It's her secret to success, one she has tested during her climb from secretary to nationally known educator. And it is a philosophy that she is adamant about passing on to her students.
As she says, the public schools did not allow her the freedom to get her message across. In her own classroom she can bluntly lay it on the line: ''You're poor, black children. You're going to stay the same color you are for the rest of your life. Either you can feel sorry for yourself, or you can decide , 'Hey, I'm going to do it for myself.' ''
Nor does she spare the parents. Too many black adults, she says, ''feel that being white is a panacea, that it does away with all the problems and that just ain't so. Blacks are not that much different. All people have one thing in common and that's their ability to survive and to feel adequate.''
Calling your own shots, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, whatever you want to call it, that's what Collins practices and preaches.
''I'm from Alabama, and my father was an undertaker and grocery merchant. He was perhaps the most influential man, black or white (in my life). That's why I never got the 'I am insecure' or 'poor little black me' attitude, because we perhaps lived better than any family in that town, black or white.''
Such a childhood prevented her from developing strong thoughts of racism, she says. They also fostered an unremitting self-assuredness. ''My parents always said I was so determined that I'd never come to any good. I was really a very determined child because I always had my own way. But my greatest battles have been never to let anyone tell me who I am.''
That strong sense of self-possession landed Collins her first job as a secretary after college: ''I told them I had worked as a secretary, but I hadn't ,'' she says candidly. Far from being trained in either teaching or secretarial skills, she had graduated as a business major from Clark College, which she claims is ''among the Harvard and Yales for blacks.'' ''I wear with a badge of honor that I didn't go to the typical teacher's college, that I never had a reading course. I don't need that. I didn't want to be a teacher.''
But her transition into the teaching profession did come, and it was about the time of the birth of her first child. As she says, ''I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted for my children,'' and the public schools in her neighborhood just didn't have it. So she entered the teaching profession and taught in the public schools for 14 years. She put her own children into private schools, however. That is, until seven years ago, when she became disillusioned even with private-school curriculums and started Westside Prep School for her and her neighbors' children.
Today, pupils up to the 8th grade can attend Westside Prep in its new quarters between the Hawthorn Grill and a sheet-metal company on West Chicago Avenue. It is not a prestigious address. Six teachers now assist Collins;
future plans call for the addition of a high school. The whole experience, says the educator, taught her ''to be independent, not to be a quitter.''
Such are the life lessons that Collins strives to pass on to her pupils, along with a strong education in the classics. The virtue of a such an education, she maintains, is that it fosters a sense of historical perspective and dignifies mankind's struggle to better itself. ''Our children always think of everything being very easy,'' she says. ''I don't know where we got it from that America was built on instant gratification. Every generation is going to find a utopia. Nobody has found one yet. Man makes his own. You have to fight at being happy. But to think that it's going to be handed to you?'' Collins snorts at such a notion. ''I tell them: 'Kids, you take the world the way you find it. Nobody cares about what you want, kid. You are part of a big world that keeps going whether you function or not. The world doesn't need you, but you need to be able to cope in this world.' ''
And that's where Collins sees herself, helping her students - even if it means pounding on desks and hollering - to learn to make it in the world.
It is a journey that starts with Aesop's fables, phonics, and, of course, a heavy dose of the classics. It is a curriculum she has compiled herself. Many ''books'' consist of dozens of Xeroxed pages lifted from old 19th-century readers, or from high school and even college-level textbooks.
''Publishers are my worst enemies,'' she complains. ''They don't want to hear what I'm saying, because they're writing 'See Sue. See Pepper. See Jimmy and Sue.' I won't have any of that in here. I'm saying you don't need all that junk.''
Improving her pupils' reading abilities is Collins's bailiwick, so much so that she relies heavily on the interdisciplinary approach (in which several subjects are taught in conjunction) for teaching different subjects. Such a method, she says, has drawn criticism from the media and other educators. ''Reporters have written that we don't have history or geography. But how can you separate history and geography from reading?''
By Christmas of their first year, four-year-olds at Westside Prep will be reading from a third-grade reader. By sixth grade, they will be using high-school texts. Daily compositions are a strict necessity. ''They write haikus, narratives, legends, myths. They memorize one poem every two weeks. They read a library book every two weeks,'' Collins says. Report cards include such requirements as ''daily research,'' ''poems read during this period,'' ''beginning Latin,'' and ''library assignments completed.'' Library choices include: ''Jane Eyre,'' ''The Divine Comedy,'' ''Oliver Twist,'' ''War and Peace ,'' and ''The Canterbury Tales,'' among others.
There is also no recess at Westside Preparatory School and little frivolity at holiday times. ''When the other children are out for Lincoln's and Washington's birthday, I tell them, 'You better try to sit here and learn how to spell Washington.' We put children's papers on the walls. There are no Easter bunnies or Santas parading around here.''
Many educators remain divided over the Collins approach to schooling, with its heavy emphasis on drills, memorization, and interdisciplinary learning.But other observers, including Scott Thompson, president of National Association of Secondary School Principals, credit Mrs. Collins for the sheer amount of time she spends with children and their lessons - a commodity known today as ''time on task.''
''She spends a long day with those kids,'' Mr. Thompson says. ''There is no doubt they are being pushed and challenged.''
One senses the students are also learning a little of the Marva Collins school of life. On a wrinkled sheet of notebook paper on her desk, Kyle Gurley, age 8, has written in careful cursive handwriting: ''I will find a way, and if there is no way, I will make one.''