Frustrated with the failure of the public school system, a public school teacher starts her own private school. Based on a true story. [ The Marva Collins Story credits: Dir: Peter Levin/ Cicely Tyson, Morgan Freeman / 100 min/ Drama, Biography/ Government Schools, Incompetent Government, Voluntarism]
Marva Collins, a Chicago public school teacher, started “Westside Preparatory School” in 1975. At its inception it was a very modest operation: a one-room school, equipped with books discarded by the public schools, and run on a shoestring budget funded by Collins’s savings. It had only a slim chance of success. But Collins had seen first-hand what public school education was doing to the kids in her depressed neighborhood—the hopelessness, ignorance, and poverty—and was determined to do something about it. This film tells her remarkable story.
She began with just a handful of students, many of them unable to pay tuition, and almost all failing or classified as “learning disabled” by the public school system. These were tough cases. Undaunted, Collins applied her own teaching methods—challenging her students from even the earliest age, giving constant encouragement, exposing them to great works of literature, and convincing them that education leads to a better life.
After a year, she decided to have her students take standardized tests to show their parents what she was accomplishing. Her students scored incredibly well. Even the ones previously labeled “learning disabled” scored at least five grade levels higher. This film does a good job of recording this triumph, and it’s a story libertarians will value for its private-versus-public-school angle.
It also communicates Collins’s own frequently libertarian attitude toward government. In particular, her experience in public schools convinced her that government wasted too much time on bureaucracy and meddled too much in the classroom. As her character in the film says: “I don’t accept federal funds. They’ve been pouring federal funds into this neighborhood for years. It hasn’t changed. In my estimation federal funding is not the solution. It’s part of the disease.” Later she says, “You see children, the system has people conned. Welfare is just another word for slavery.”
That kind of talk, combined with the embarrassment that her success generated for the public school system, has made Collins a controversial figure. In fact, the airing of The Marva Collins Story itself touched off a backlash of criticism from Chicago public school teachers who considered it insulting to public school education. It is. All the more reason to see it.
It’s not bad as entertainment either. The underlying story is very inspiring, and Cicely Tyson gives a heart-warming performance as Collins.
“Hers is an untold but grand and heroic story…Collins did not think poor, black students were destined to play basketball or languish in poverty, illiteracy and despair. She held to the idea that each individual has merit and potential and that the young must be nourished, taught and loved.”