Collins, school reformer, delivers on her promises

The Education Beat

Keynote: Expert on teaching speaks at Convention Center conference on family involvement in education.

April 14, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT DIDN'T surprise Marva N. Collins when fellow guests at a downtown Baltimore hotel asked her to fetch clean sheets.

"Happens all the time," said Collins, the African-American educator who claims she can turn around any school in the world in six months.

Just as many whites hold low expectations for blacks in city schools, she said, they assume African-Americans in a hotel corridor are performing maid service.

Collins was in town recently to deliver the keynote speech at a Convention Center conference on "family involvement" in education. She did so with her patented combination of aphorisms, unorthodox views and self-congratulations.

"I was born to win if I do not spend too much time trying to fail."

"I haven't met the person I would trust my mind to, because I'm not mindless."

"Textbook publishers aren't in the business of making schools work. They're in the business of selling more textbooks."

"I can get any class in the world to read in one month."

"If life is a bowl of cherries, why are we all in the pits?"

"People who look like me aren't supposed to be scholars, but of course we are."

"If you teach at-risk students, that makes you an at-risk teacher. I don't teach at-risk students; I teach scholars."

"When states take over [poorly performing schools], they don't know what to do with them anyway."

Collins made the last statement with state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick sitting on the dais just to her right. Collins was no kinder to Edison Schools, the for-profit firm engaged to operate three failing Baltimore schools. Edison was hired by a state-city partnership headed by Grasmick.

In fact, the only reformer Marva Collins fully trusts is Marva Collins. In 1975 she founded Westside Preparatory School in Chicago. International fame followed. Collins wrote several books and appeared twice on 60 Minutes, the second time along with several highly successful Westside graduates. Cicely Tyson played Collins in a made-for-TV movie. And recently, Collins' Chicago school, now run by her daughter, was profiled in No Excuses, a book that examines 21 high-performing, high-poverty American schools.

These days Collins is an industry. She's based in Hilton Head Island, S.C., and she licenses her "methodology," which is basically to instill a love of learning in her students, teach them the basics (including phonics, grammar and spelling) and make them believe they gain nothing by misbehaving.

No one is sent to the office in a Collins school, nor are race and poverty accepted as excuses for poor performance.

Collins accepts no government or corporate money, she said, but a look at her Web site shows that learning her methodology isn't cheap. A three-day seminar costs $495, a set of six audio tapes $99.50.

Collins told me she "doesn't care what anybody thinks of me. Just as I don't teach children to compare themselves, I don't compare myself to anyone else." But Collins used the Internet to investigate schools claiming to use her methods. "Much to my sorrow and many tears," she said, only a small number of children in the 100 schools claiming to use the Collins method are succeeding academically. "That's just tragic," she said.

Name the small college not in Western Maryland

Here's an update on Western Maryland College's search for a new name, drawn from a memo mailed last week from the college's 32-member Committee on the Naming Initiative.

Twelve weeks after the Westminster school decided to change its name because it's neither state-affiliated nor west of metropolitan Baltimore, the committee collected 418 suggestions and sent a short list (of unspecified number) to the college's Board of Trustees. Those names will be "tested with prospective audiences" before a choice is announced this year.

Naval Academy, St. John's prepare for croquet match

Now that College Park has won the national basketball championship and UMBC has been edged out in the national chess championship, get ready for the next major Maryland intercollegiate sporting event: the 20th annual croquet match April 27 between the Naval Academy and St. John's College in Annapolis.

St. John's has won the Annapolis Cup 15 times to the academy's four, but is smarting after a loss last year, said the college's Imperial Wicket - Jon Polk of Athens, Ga. The match is at 1 p.m. on the St. John's campus.

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