Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Book Nook: Whispers of Hope - The Story of My Life

Heroes live among us but are so busy “saving the world” that they often exist under the radar and go unrecognized. Luckily for us, legendary educator/activist and author, Dr. Bertie Simmons wrote it all down in a memoir that spans her life before, during and after the turning around of a failing school - and not without controversy. Whispers of Hope: The Story of My Life exemplifies just how a visionary change agent is imprinted by racial injustice as a child witnessing the unfair treatment of her black friend Dorothy, works to bring gang members together at Furr High School in Houston and continues today, at age 86 to sound her voice in the George Floyd era of horrific state of systemic racism.

Read what “Bertie” has to say about Unity in her blog. Dr. Simmons, the recipient of a myriad of awards for her good work, is here to remind us that the call for freedom and justice is a lifelong aspiration and takes all of us to make the world a better place.

I had a chance to interview her to learn more.

Why did you originally get involved in education?
I originally got involved in education because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students. I had a teacher in high school, Mrs. Ewing, who made a difference in my life. She opened my eyes to new ways of doing things and helped me to see life in a different way. Mrs. Ewing not only taught me academic subjects, but she also taught me as a whole person including my social emotional side and capitalized on my interests and talents. She made me feel valued and that I could achieve any goals that I set for myself. I was dyslexic, but the activities that she engaged me in made me realize that reading a book and passing a test were not the only important things in life and that success could be measured in more than one way.

What are some of the positive changes you made in the school?
I was asked to come out of retirement to assume the principalship of a school that was labeled a dropout factory, a direct pipeline from school to prison, and a throw away school. I was called three times before I finally agreed to take the position. I took the position because I had just lost a sixteen-year-old granddaughter who always said she wanted to make the world a better place for all people. I wanted to leave a legacy for her. The school was minority and I am white. The school was primarily known for violence and gang activity, and I knew nothing about dealing with gangs. I immediately established rapport with the students. I noticed right off that the teachers had no respect for the students, and the gang task force manhandled them and arrested them for minor disruptions, especially if the student involved requested to speak to me. I asked that the gang task force be removed from the school which did not me popular with the police who said I was too old to be a principal. I took the following steps:
  • I hired teachers and staff who cared about all students and were willing to work with me to make changes.
  • We eliminated suspensions and expulsions unless it was required by law. I interviewed and hired a police officer who understood the students and community and worked with them to resolve their problems. We established a student court and a restorative discipline program which included a Thinkery where a mediator worked with teachers, students and parents to restore relationships.
  • I involved the parents in monthly classes that mirrored subjects their students were studying. As the students were studying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Basic Needs, the parents were then taught about the seven developmental assets.
  • We began to build a school based on intentionality, trust, mutual respect, and optimism. We were intentional in how we created an environment that invited members to do their best. With all the obstacles our students faced, we did not leave the school environment and student success to chance. As a result, our students were given opportunities to participate in numerous projects and competitions that made learning purposeful and personal. We capitalized on their interests and talents. I personally made frequent home visits so that I could become more familiar with the family and to ensure student attendance.
  • We created pathways in order to give students options to align with their interests and goals. Students were permitted to choose from three options: Alternative Forms of Energy, Environmental Justice, and Place-based Learning that took place outside the brick and mortar walls of the school. In these pathways we emphasized civility and a desire to give back to the community. As an example, we worked with the East-West Asian Pacific education program and sent students to Cambodia to help bring fresh water to elementary schools.
  • We established a Genius Hour once a week where students could participate in or teach courses of their choice. Some of the more than fifty classes offered were chess, rocket building, robotics, Chinese dance, cooking and 3-D printing. One student did a research project on diabetes because there were several cases in her family, and she was overweight. She developed a plan for eliminating sugar from her diet. As a result, she lost 50 pounds.
  • We added Advanced Academic courses and worked to prepare the students for the state test, but we never “drilled and killed.” Passing that test was not our primary goal. We were preparing students for life.
How can parents and educators work to improve their school environment?
  • Parents can be made an integral part of the school by including them in the decision-making structure. In addition, they can be offered courses that would be taught at the school and from which they can select based on their student and family needs. We taught nutrition to students and parents. We also taught English to Spanish-speaking parents and Spanish to English speakers. We offered writing and poetry classes to parents taught by teachers in the evening.
  • Schools can offer parent conferences taught by teachers on Saturdays to provide learning opportunities. Consultants can be invited into parent conferences based on the needs of the community.
  • Parents, teachers, students, and administrators can work together to create a Community Covenant that would outline the commitments made to the school by each group. This covenant can be revisited every year and signed off on by each group. Our covenant was reproduced as large posters and signed copies were place around the school.
  • Educators must be open to learning about new ways to meet the needs of all students. Teachers can be made a part of decision-making with an emphasis on their interests, abilities, and talents.
  • Parents and educators can work together to create a culture of joy rather than of drudgery and failure.

To order the book visit:

For 58 years Bertie Simmons, Ed.D. was a dedicated educator in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). As evidence of Simmons' indelible impact on the Furr High School during her 17-year tenure, education advocate and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of the late Apple, Inc. CEO Steve Jobs, recognized Furr High School in 2016 as a recipient of a ten-million-dollar grant through the XQ Super School Project. Simmons’ school was one of 10 selected from nearly 700 schools nationwide for “reimagining high school education.”

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