Sunday, August 29, 2010


“There is a brilliant child locked inside every student.” Marva Collins

Children are born into the world with minds like blank slates which, from the first minute, will fill up fast with positive and negative experiences. Those experiences, in turn, contribute to their future lives - their emotions, behaviors and outcomes. I remember Marva Collins, a well known Chicago private school educator, once telling a group of teachers in Seattle why inner city children, who were failing in the public school system, succeeded with her program. She said that many of them arrived with their mental tapes so filled with negative messages they could not be successful as students. Simply put, she and her staff needed to tape over the old information with new empowering affirmations, academic expectations, and learning in order for the children to later lead productive, happy lives. Self esteem and a belief in the future would follow. Parents needed to be on board as active partners or the students would not be admitted.

With that expectation in place, achievement followed. Students engaged in reading and math far beyond their public school peers. Learning about the classics seemed to be a cornerstone. Even kindergarteners were exposed to Shakespeare. They were all in the process of becoming leaders and lifelong learners.

Marva Collins started Chicago’s Westside Prep in 1975. Now we are hearing about other schools showing dramatic results with their students. Schools like Urban Prep in Chicago boast that every senior is college bound. Capital Prep in Hartford, Connecticut has high expectations about kids getting into college and claims to have a near-zero drop-out rate. In TV news programs about these schools we watch as large groups of predominantly African-American young men, in uniform, faces filled with serious intent, shout out uplifting affirmations about their future.

Recently, as I watched these high achieving students filled with hope and enthusiasm, I found myself thinking about Marva Collins. I was sad to learn that her amazing academy was forced to close in 2008 because, as she put it in an interview, "the community we wanted to serve has not supported, or could not support the school, to the extent financial considerations demand." The $5,000+ price tag for an academic year was simply too much for most folks, yet it costs more to educate a child in the public school arena. What a shame her approach was not able to come under the financing wing of the Illinois public school system - truly a loss for all the stakeholders.

No doubt many students attending these high achieving schools come with their mind tapes cluttered with traumatic experiences of neglect and abuse. Now those tapes are slowly but surely being erased and taped over with new uplifting experiences and information.

Today the ABC television program, “This Week” devoted its news hour to problems in our schools, and how public schools and public school teachers are failing our children. I’m a little tired of hearing about getting rid of “bad teachers.” There are some, and they definitely need to go. But there are also good teachers in bad situations. Is it possible that one problem is the teaching environment? Perhaps the teaching environment and school administration needs to be reviewed. Could it be that some administrators are either burnt out or lacking in leadership skills? Are some of them unable to give teachers the support they need to teach well? Helping teachers to be better classroom managers is laudable. Let's take every workshop we can since poor management is often the culprit to effective teaching. However, know this: It only takes a few acting-out students to completely disrupt whatever learning is taking place. Often the answer is to send the child to the office for a time out or move him/her to another classroom for awhile. How can this be good for anyone? For me, when I was teaching, I would willingly have had a few extra students if, in so doing, the dollars saved would go to some kind of effective behavior modification program for disruptive kids in our school. A specially trained teacher working with such children and their parents would benefit everyone.

Obviously schools like Urban Prep, Capital Prep and, formerly, Westside Preparatory Prep are taking care of business. Granted, they probably don't have the parent involvement and commitment issues that many public schools have, which is a huge problem that needs solving. But, would it be too far “out of the box” to think that our public schools be patterned after these successful schools? Isn’t something that seems to work this well be worth trying? Sometimes it seems like we talk problems to death on every talk show, and in every editorial, often by people who are not in the educational trenches. Let’s get serious about educational reform, but let’s consider using some programs like those above as our recipe for success.


Marva Collins’ Way, by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin, is an easy-to-read book for educators and parents alike. Her belief that all children can learn and that teachers have the responsibility to make it happen should give us hope and encouragement, as we work to help every child reach his or her potential.

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