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Caroline Bermudez

All She Had to Do Was Take a Plane Full of Gangbangers to Ground Zero and Now Bertie Simmons Runs a 'Super School'

Bertie Simmons might be America’s oldest high school principal and she also may be its toughest. In 2000, reeling from the recent death of her beloved 16-year-old granddaughter in a skiing accident, Simmons came out of retirement as an educator and administrator to lead Houston’s Furr High School, a troubled school plagued by gang violence and a high dropout rate. What was supposed to be a temporary job has now, 16 years later, turned into Simmons’ all-consuming passion: turning around a school many had thought was hopeless. Under her leadership, Furr has a graduation rate of over 95 percent and is now one of the $10 million winners for XQ: The Super School Project. Simmons speaks to us about how she did the seemingly impossible. What do you drink in the morning? Coffee or tea? Vanilla lattes. What brought you out of retirement? The third time they called me, I told them that I would come here for three months because this school had a history that I knew about. I knew that they had about 15 gangs and there was a lot of violence, so I said I would give it three months. I came and they asked me to come back. Even the kids started asking me to come back, so I decided to return for another year. This is my 16th year. What keeps you there? I have always believed that people are put on earth for a purpose and my purpose is to make a difference in the lives of other people. When I finally was able to get rid of all the gang activity, I fell in love with the community, with the students, and the more I stayed here, the more I fell in love with them, the better things got to be. I couldn’t leave. How did you deal with the gangs? I tried to build a rapport with the gang members, and I taught them a (social justice through hip-hop) class. When I first came, the teachers here didn’t like me at all because I had been a superintendent. They thought I was sent here to get rid of all of them, and I wasn’t. I would teach classes, and they put 69 gang members in my first class I taught. One day, the second year I was here, I came in for my meeting and there had been a huge riot on campus and ambulances were taking people away who had been injured. I think some of them were police officers. We either had to change their behavior or this would just continue to happen. I called the rival gangs together to meet with me. The assistant principal told me that I was probably going to be fired. At that particular time, I thought that might be a blessing. There was so much violence on the campus. I did meet with the gangsters, and they wouldn’t talk to me at first. Finally, I asked them what it would take to bring peace into their lives and into the lives of those of us at the school. One gangster said, “Miss, we don’t trust anybody except our gang members and our families.” They said they didn’t think 9/11 had happened—this was August, and 9/11 had happened the year before. They said that it was a movie and the government was just trying to fool them because they were poor and minorities. I said, “That really did happen.” And one gangster said, “Miss, if you believe that, you may be dumber than we are.” I said, “What if I took you to New York to show you Ground Zero where this happened?” There was dead silence. And then finally one gang member asked, “Miss, would you drive us?” And I said, “No, I can’t drive you. I’m an old woman and you’re a bunch of thugs!” They started laughing. I told them we would have to fly. They had never been on a plane and they were afraid. I called Continental Airlines and they let me take them through a plane so they could see the inside. Then I decided I would go down to our central office and see if I could help get some funding for this trip. Nobody would support me. I happened to be working with some consultants, Drs. Bena Kallick and Art Costa and Marian Leibowitz, who happened to be the mother of Jon Stewart from Comedy Central. They heard about what I was trying to do and they wanted to help, so suddenly I started getting money from everywhere. I got enough money to take these kids on that trip and all the teachers were making fun of me. They said I should have been rewarding the good students—good, meaning “A” students. I said we only have nine in the National Honor Society, so I have enough money to take them with us. That changed everything on this campus. When they came back, it was the gangsters who helped me to stop all the violence. What I learned is that when you show respect, you get respect. The graduation rate when I came here was about 50 percent, last year we had only one dropout. Our graduation rate was over 95 percent. It’s kinda hard to leave when you’re making a difference. How did you come to apply for the XQ grant? One of my assistant principals called me because she had seen this program on TV. They were announcing the XQ grant that Laurene Powell Jobs was offering. I turned it on and I loved it. I told the staff about it. None of us thought we would get it. But what we thought about was what we would learn along the way. I’ve applied for a lot of grants, but I’ve never learned as much as we learned having applied for this grant. What are your plans with the grant money? We’re going to have a community center and we’re going to have a clinic. We’re also going to have a radio station and a mobile radio van. We’re going to be out in the community and broadcasting from different spots. We’re going to be individualizing instruction and have competency-based education. What are your hobbies? I love live theater. I want to go to “Hamilton” so badly, I know all the lyrics. I love music and I love dancing. I wanted to be a dancer on Broadway.
Caroline Bermudez
Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders ...

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