Without Its Storied Principal, What’s The Future Of Furr High?

The suspension is an unexpected detour in Bertie Simmons’ 17 years leading Furr, since she famously came out of retirement in 2000 to turn the school around

Principal Bertie Simmons listened to a freshman read his first essay.
Principal Bertie Simmons listened to a freshman read his first essay.

This was supposed to be a banner year for Furr High School. It moved into a brand new building and was using a ten million dollar grant to reinvent high school. Even though Hurricane Harvey delayed the school year by two weeks, things seemed to be back to normal.

Longtime principal Bertie Simmons met with a mom who was trying to get her daughter into Furr. 

“I’m going to take a chance on her,” Simmons told the family, using her typical tough love approach. “So if she doesn’t do it, what I do is I take my earrings off and bring her down,” she said.

“Yes, I remember you said that to my oldest daughter,” replied the mom, Erica Alejo, with a laugh.

“And it worked with her, and I have a baseball bat. And that’s what I use on you, OK?” Simmons continued.

Everyone in the room takes it as a joke. Simmons is 83 years old and just five feet tall —  shorter than many of her students. Kids have heard this so often, they once gave Simmons an engraved bat as a gag gift. But now district administrators aren’t laughing.

A recording went out to homes on Sept. 29: “This is the Houston Independent School District, calling with an important message for Furr High school parents and students.”

About two weeks ago, they suspended Simmons after students complained about her playful threats and the school’s strict dress code, which the superintendent had said would be relaxed district-wide.

The suspension is an unexpected detour in Simmons’ 17 years leading Furr. She famously came out of retirement in 2000 to turn the school around. Her unconventional style made her a media darling and boosted morale.

Some students say they want their principal, Bertie Simmons, back on campus.

“Look up in the sky … It’s a bird … It’s a plane! No, it’s Super Bertie!” Carl Johnson read a poem he wrote in honor of Simmons. He went to Furr and so did his kids.  Now he serves on several advisory committees for the school.

Her sudden absence raises a question for Johnson and others: What happens to this high-needs school when it loses its charismatic leader? In some ways, it’s an inevitable question the school has to answer — whether now or later.

“Trying to replace her is going to be almost impossible.  Because many, many might not have this same determination that she had,” said Johnson. “When you bring in somebody else new, I think the program that she instituted might not be followed through because every administrator has a different procedure that they want to follow.”

That determination helped Simmons reduce gang violence and raise graduation rates.

Still, others believe that Furr could use a fresh approach. Bob Sanborn leads the advocacy group Children at Risk, which grades local schools every year and recently gave Furr a D minus.

“Bertie has taken it to a certain level. She has absolutely made improvements. And another leader can come in and make even more improvements,” Sanborn said.

Research shows that after teachers, a strong principal is the biggest factor in a school’s success. Sanborn said that often means someone who relies on data to make decisions. “Leaders that understand what it takes to turn around a school aren’t just cults of personality but they’re really focusing on the details,” he explained.

What happens to a school like Furr without its longtime principal often depends on what kind of leadership they had, according to Bradley Carpenter, a professor at the University of Houston. He explained some leaders are big personalities — like Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca — but fail to develop other leaders on their team.

Instead, an effective principal, Carpenter said, “is collaborative and builds capacity in teachers and shares decision-making and is able to set a clear vision and rally resources around those specific needs.”

At Furr, the school has complex needs: It has a high poverty rate, large immigrant population and a history with gang violence.

Attorney Scott Newar speaking on the reassignment of Bertie Simmons.

Senior Victoria Owens, worry that the school’s hard-won gains will be reversed without Simmons. “Because if we don’t have her and we end up with someone who doesn’t recognize these problems or doesn’t know how to fix these problems, then it might just end up going back to the way it was before which you know — dropout factory,” she said.

Owens said that she’s also concerned a more structured curriculum will replace the creative projects that Simmons used to win the prestigious grant.

For her part, the suspended principal is fighting to return and filed her own legal action this week.

The district said in a statement that it has a duty to investigate student complaints and, in fact, is widening its probe.

“The Houston Independent School District respects Dr. Bertie Simmons and all her contributions to HISD and the lives of our students, but every employee is held to the same standards regardless of their tenure and status within the district,” the statement read. “The investigation into the allegation that led to the decision to temporarily relieve Dr. Simmons of her duties is closed … However, additional allegations surfaced and she remains temporarily relieved of her duties.”

At a press conference this week, Simmons voiced a larger concern. “This is why you can’t rethink public high schools — because of the bureaucracy that gets involved and stops you,” she told reporters.

Simmons said that’s the real threat to the future of Furr High — no matter who’s in charge.

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[audio mp3="https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/08371_Furr-Walkout.mp3"][/audio]

The fallout from the suspension of a longtime Houston principal continues, as several dozen students at Furr High School walked out of class Tuesday morning before the day’s attendance was taken.

They chanted “Bring her back” and were joined by community activists, protesting the suspension of their longtime principal, Bertie Simmons.

 

Simmons has been temporarily relieved of her duties at Furr High since the end of September, while the Houston Independent  School District investigates unspecified allegations. The initial complaints over a joke about a bat and strict dress code have been closed, but new ones have surfaced, according to HISD.

Simmons has led Furr for the last 17 years, since she came out of retirement to turn the school around.

[gallery ids="190876,241492,241493,241111"]

 

[post_title] => Dozens Of Students At Furr High School Walk Out To Protest Principal's Suspension [post_excerpt] => The initial complaints over a joke about a bat and strict dress code have been closed, but new ones have surfaced, according to HISD [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => dozens-of-students-at-furr-high-walk-out-to-protest-principals-suspension [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-10-17 12:23:30 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-10-17 17:23:30 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/?p=242896 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 240640 [post_author] => 26 [post_date] => 2017-10-05 09:31:13 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-10-05 14:31:13 [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_190876" align="alignnone" width="1000"]Principal Bertie Simmons listened to a freshman read his first essay. Principal Bertie Simmons listened to a freshman read his first essay.[/caption]

Seventeen years ago, Bertie Simmons came out of retirement to turn around Furr High school in east Houston. She helped improve the school and win it ten million dollars in a national competition.

But the Houston Independent School District (HISD) said on Wednesday night that Simmons had been temporarily relieved of her duties as principal of the school. On Thursday, the school district alleged that the principal’s temporary reassignment is because of a flap over uniforms.

HISD says they won’t provide specific details to protect people’s privacy and that administrators are working with campus leaders to make sure there’s no disruption to class.

News 88.7 has obtained a copy of the memo that details those allegations.

In that memo, dated Sept. 29, 2017, the area superintendent for schools on the east side, Jorge Arredondo, told Furr High School’s principal that she didn’t follow the district’s decision to relax the student dress code after Harvey. He also alleged that Bertie Simmons verbally threatened student with a baseball bat. Arredondo ordered her to stay home and away from the campus she’s led since 2000.

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Meanwhile, Simmons’ attorney, Scott Newar, wrote Superintendent Richard Carranza that all these claims are false.

He argued in the letter that the district left it up to individual principals how to handle uniforms, citing examples from other principals at Lamar High and Hogg Middle. Newar explained that since Furr High has a history with gangs, Simmons’ strict uniform policy helps reduce violence. What's more, both the district and Furr High gave out free uniforms to help students who lost clothes during the flood.

As for a threat of using a baseball bat, Newar acknowledged that Simmons has routinely -- and playfully -- joked about a bat in her office. But he said that "it defies credulity and commons sense" that Simmons could threaten someone since she is five feet tall and 83 years old.

While the investigation is pending, both the district and Simmons attorney have declined to comment.

[post_title] => UPDATE: Memo Details Allegations Against Longtime HISD's Furr Principal [post_excerpt] => HISD also alleges that Simmons verbally threatened students with a baseball bat -- a threat her attorney says defies "credulity" since she is 83 years old. [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => hisds-furr-high-school-principal-temporarily-relieved-of-her-duties [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2017-10-05 14:23:12 [post_modified_gmt] => 2017-10-05 19:23:12 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => http://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/?p=240640 [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw )[2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 222747 [post_author] => 26 [post_date] => 2017-07-24 07:30:00 [post_date_gmt] => 2017-07-24 12:30:00 [post_content] =>

[audio mp3="https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/08376_Teacher-Prep-Feature.mp3"][/audio]

This summer, biology teacher Christian Johnson has worked so much, it almost doesn't feel like a break.

Early in the morning, she leads a dozen cheerleaders in their drill practice. And Johnson herself has been studying up.

The subject: How to teach in a new way, so that her future freshmen learn in a deeper, more personalized way. Think of the instructor stepping away from the lecture podium and being more hands-on.

Her campus at Furr High School is gearing up to launch a new kind of ninth grade. It's part of how Furr, which used to have a reputation for drop-outs and gang violence, is trying to transform high school, with the help of a $10 million grant.

"This is the expectation way up here," Johnson said. "It’s going to be a lot, so I got to get myself prepared for it."

At one recent workshop, she joined half a dozen other ninth grade instructors in the campus coffee house. They brainstormed for the new ninth grade, thinking about how to give students more ownership in the curriculum and testing.

Consultant Anna Hall, who has helped launch new kinds of high schools around the country, led the day-long workshop.

Hall said that it can be a lot for teachers to wrap their heads around, because they think they "know what school is."

"Because I went to school and I've been teaching in school and I have a good understanding of school," Hall said. "But if I have to actually put the pieces of school together, the process of getting through that is somewhat unknown."

[caption id="attachment_222755" align="alignnone" width="1000"]Biology teacher Christian Johnson said that the changes at Furr High will be a challenge for teachers, but she believes they will make Biology teacher Christian Johnson said that the changes at Furr High will be a challenge for teachers, but she believes they will make "history."[/caption]

Johnson, who just finished her first year as a teacher, said she wondered how she would put all the pieces together and "personalize" learning for over 100 students.

"It's got to be challenging because everybody is not actually ready to be on their own with learning. So it's going to be a challenge," she said.

More challenges: Johnson and her fellow ninth grade instructors have to come up with new kinds of tests besides multiple choice bubble sheets. They will also need to work together with students to create hands-on projects. And, as one big ninth grade team, they'll teach different subjects together, like English and science.

Plus, the new ninth grade academy at Furr High School will be a separate part of the school's brand new campus.

Johnson, who used to work in retail and banking before she became a teacher, said she liked that idea. It's how she spent her own freshman year in Fort Hood.

"I love my babies even though they are a task to deal with on their own," she explained. "They're kind of confused, like, they think they're grown because they are out of middle school. But then they get with the high school, they're still a baby. So they get confused and I love working with my ninth graders and I want to stay with them."

[caption id="attachment_222764" align="alignnone" width="750"]At workshops this spring and summer, teachers at Furr High School worked together to refine the new ninth grade academy. At workshops this spring and summer, teachers at Furr High School worked together to refine the new ninth grade academy.[/caption]

Others don’t consider this active instruction all that cutting edge.

"This is not new. This is teaching," said Linda McSpadden McNeil, who directs of the Center for Education at Rice University. She said this is how teaching should be done.

But instead, she explained, schools and politicians have focused so much on standardized testing, they’ve pushed this kind of teaching aside.

"There is a very long tradition certainly going back to do John Dewey," McNeil said, noting the American psychologist who pushed for education reform in the early 20th century.

"Henry David Thoreau got in trouble for taking his students out in the woods to identify plants rather than just using big, biological, botanical taxonomies. So, no, the idea of really engaging the kids' minds -- giving them significant issues to wrestle with, to puzzle over, to compare different primary source documents and to write -- is absolutely not new."

She added that to really teach in this way, instructors need the time for planning and support from their school leadership.

[caption id="attachment_222761" align="alignnone" width="1000"]Last year, Furr High School won a $10 million dollar grant from the nonprofit, the XQ Institute. A big focus in the next school year: the school's new ninth grade academy. Last year, Furr High School won a $10 million dollar grant from the nonprofit, the XQ Institute. A big focus in the next school year: the school's new ninth grade academy.[/caption]

At Furr High, teachers still feel some pressure. During the recent workshop, social studies teacher Merriah Wilhite asked about ninth graders who arrive at school already behind in the basics, like reading.

"How does that look as far as getting them ready to do independent work, to take ownership of the things they need to have finished?" Wilhite asked.

"Where do you start out there? How do you do the realistic day-to-day work? And so we were saying that we do feel overwhelmed and it seems like a lot. We're willing to do the work, we're willing to be invested in the kids because this is for the kids and we're all about the kids."

In fact, teachers at Furr said that, under that stress, they also feel excited.

"This will be history," said Johnson. "Matter of fact, when I tell people I work at Furr for now they still have that old Furr in their mind, like, 'Oh my gosh, how can you deal with all the gang-banging there?' And they don't understand that Furr is growing and is changing in a new direction so I definitely want to be a part of that history."

[caption id="attachment_222758" align="alignnone" width="1000"]Ninth grade teachers Seema Dwivedi and Superna Arya joined their fellow instructors this spring to prepare for a new kind of ninth grade. It will involve new kinds of tests, more hands-on projects and students taking more charge of their own learning. Ninth grade teachers Seema Dwivedi and Superna Arya joined their fellow instructors this spring to prepare for a new kind of ninth grade. It will involve new kinds of tests, more hands-on projects and students taking more ownership of their own learning.[/caption]

Editor’s Note: This series is produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.

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[audio mp3="https://www.houstonpublicmedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/08371_Furr-Walkout.mp3"][/audio]

The fallout from the suspension of a longtime Houston principal continues, as several dozen students at Furr High School walked out of class Tuesday morning before the day’s attendance was taken.

They chanted “Bring her back” and were joined by community activists, protesting the suspension of their longtime principal, Bertie Simmons.

 

Simmons has been temporarily relieved of her duties at Furr High since the end of September, while the Houston Independent  School District investigates unspecified allegations. The initial complaints over a joke about a bat and strict dress code have been closed, but new ones have surfaced, according to HISD.

Simmons has led Furr for the last 17 years, since she came out of retirement to turn the school around.

[gallery ids="190876,241492,241493,241111"]

 

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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