Re­mov­ing Furr High’s beloved, tough prin­ci­pal makes no sense

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - CITY | STATE - lisa.falkenberg@chron.com twit­ter.com/ChronFalken­berg

words, not about his mama, not about his grandma, not about his girl­friend.

He was talk­ing about his 83-year-old prin­ci­pal at Furr High School, Ber­tie Sim­mons.

That tells you all you need to know about Sim­mons, the 5-foot-tall, fist-bump­ing force of na­ture who 17 years ago came out of re­tire­ment to turn around a gang-rid­den school with tough love and bound­less de­vo­tion to her stu­dents. She ended up win­ning the pres­ti­gious In­spi­ra­tion Award from the Col­lege Board in 2011, and just last year, a $10 mil­lion grant to rein­vent the high school from the XQ In­sti­tute, led by Lau­rene Pow­ell Jobs.

Hous­ton ISD of­fi­cials should be kiss­ing the linoleum tile she walks on.

In­stead, the re­spected ed­u­ca­tor was yanked from her post a lit­tle over a week ago and placed on tem­po­rary leave for al­legedly vi­o­lat­ing the dis­trict’s re­laxed uni­form pol­icy and — wait for it — threat­en­ing a stu­dent with a bat.

“You know I couldn’t even pick up a bat,” Sim­mons told me Thurs­day in an in­ter­view.

Any­one who knows Sim­mons knows she doesn’t need a bat to main­tain or­der. This is a woman who once ne­go­ti­ated a peace deal with ri­val gang mem­bers on cam­pus and then, as a re­ward, hauled them up to New York City to see a Broadway play.

Sim­mons said she was con­fused about the dis­trict’s abrupt move, sad for her stu­dents, buoyed by com­mu­nity sup­port and de­ter­mined as ever to get back to Furr and her kids, whom she says she misses “some­thing aw­ful.” The Sept. 29 memo in­form­ing her of her re­moval, signed by Jorge Arre­dondo, area su­per­in­ten­dent for the east side, also banned Sim­mons from cam­pus and from con­tact with stu­dents and par­ents pend­ing an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“I’m just en­er­gized by peo­ple

“I love her with all my heart.” A 17-year-old high school se­nior was quoted in the Chron­i­cle a few days ago say­ing those

do­ing things that are wrong,” she said. “Be­cause I want to make them right.”

The dis­trict said in a state­ment that it won’t elab­o­rate on Sim­mons’ re­moval “out of re­spect for the pri­vacy of the in­di­vid­u­als in­volved.” Re­laxed dress code

Sim­mons, known for her light­ning wit and dry hu­mor, said she some­times jokes about a bat she keeps in her of­fice, but every­body knows she’s kid­ding. In­deed, the 17-year-old quoted say­ing he loved Sim­mons, Jor­dan Davis, de­scribed to my col­league Shelby Webb how the prin­ci­pal pulled him aside when his grades slipped and play­fully told him: “Don’t make me take my ear­rings off and take you down.”

The no­tion that Sim­mons was re­moved for thwart­ing a post-Har­vey dis­trict pol­icy to re­lax the stu­dent dress code is equally silly. Not only be­cause other prin­ci­pals had done the same thing to main­tain or­der, but be­cause Sim­mons, like the other prin­ci­pals, had made sure the uni­form re­quire­ment didn’t bur­den fam­i­lies af­fected by the storm.

Hours be­fore Sim­mons was re­moved from her post, she had tried to ex­plain to dis­trict of­fi­cials that she needed her stu­dents to be in uni­form to keep them safe, she said.

“We’d al­ready had some gang ac­tiv­ity, two fights,” Sim­mons said. “And their col­ors, good lord. And tags hang­ing out of their pocket to show their col­ors. I knew how quickly this could lead to them tak­ing over. I’d seen it when I first got there.”

Sim­mons said she se­cured do­na­tions so that she could pro­vide free uni­forms to ev­ery stu­dent on cam­pus.

It’s true that Sim­mons is known for speak­ing her mind, cut­ting her own path and at times lock­ing horns with higher-ups, in­clud­ing for­mer Su­per­in­ten­dent Terry Grier. I first met Sim­mons in 2013 when I wrote about how Grier had placed the vet­eran prin­ci­pal on a growth plan over test scores. ‘A heart of gold’

Furr, once known as a “dropout fac­tory,” has made great strides un­der Sim­mons’ lead­er­ship. Gangs no longer rule the school; the grad­u­a­tion rate topped 90 per­cent last year. The school meets the state’s aca­demic stan­dards, but stu­dent per­for­mance at the pre­dom­i­nantly mi­nor­ity, low-in­come school lags in read­ing and writ­ing.

Still, Grier didn’t hes­i­tate to de­fend Sim­mons on Fri­day when I called for his take on her re­moval.

“There’s no­body who can ever ques­tion Ber­tie’s love for kids and what she’s done to turn that school around,” Grier said.

Grier said he wasn’t fa­mil­iar with the de­tails of the al­le­ga­tions, but he couldn’t imag­ine Sim­mons act­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ately, even with the tough­est stu­dents.

“The Ber­tie I know would not do those things,” he said. “You never bet your life on much, but Ber­tie is one of those peo­ple — it might be a bet I would take.”

His “is­sue” with Sim­mons through the years was that he didn’t feel she pushed her teach­ers hard enough. When it came to the stu­dents, he said he would tell her “lov­ing them is not enough.” But he said he al­ways re­spected her.

“She’s one of the bright­est peo­ple I’ve known, one of the most ar­tic­u­late, and she has a heart of gold when it comes to kids,” he said.

The rea­sons the dis­trict gave for re­mov­ing Sim­mons don’t hold wa­ter. Per­haps that’s why the so-called in­ves­ti­ga­tion is drag­ging into an­other week — to give more time to dig up some­thing else.

There are al­ways shake­ups un­der new lead­er­ship, and the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Su­per­in­ten­dent Richard Car­ranza has been no dif­fer­ent. Sim­mons told me she likes Car­ranza and has sup­ported him through­out his first year. Last year, he praised her at a com­mu­nity meet­ing for bring­ing pride back to Furr when oth­ers had writ­ten it off, even call­ing the cam­pus “Ber­tie Sim­mons High School.” Re­spect is owed

At this point, we can only spec­u­late about the real mo­ti­va­tions for her re­moval.

This much is clear: The way Car­ranza’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has treated Sim­mons — a revered ed­u­ca­tor who has sac­ri­ficed her re­tire­ment to help un­der­priv­i­leged stu­dents — is shame­ful.

“I don’t have to be out there. You know that,” Sim­mons told me. “I’m 83. But I care too much about those kids and I want them to be suc­cess­ful.”

The kids at Furr know she loves them, and they love her. She com­mands re­spect be­cause she gives it. Re­spect is the least dis­trict of­fi­cials owe Sim­mons.

Who­ever in­sti­gated this in­ves­ti­ga­tion — be it a mem­ber of Car­ranza’s ad­min­is­tra­tion or an elected board mem­ber — needs to pro­duce some real ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing or let Sim­mons get back to work.

She’s got a school to rein­vent. She’s got young lives to save. Ei­ther help her, or get the hell out of her way.

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