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