Former Principal Bertie Simmons Writes a Memoir About Racism, Resiliency and 58 Years With HISD

Bertie Simmons writes a memoir.
Bertie Simmons writes a memoir. Photo by Margaret Downing
According to Bertie Simmons, the legendary principal who was sent home from Furr High School in October 2017 by Houston ISD officials, when it came time to work out the last details of her settlement with HISD she was asked to sign a statement promising that she wouldn’t say anything bad about the district.

No, she said, she wouldn’t do that. If you don’t, she says they warned her, we won’t issue a statement to the public thanking you for your years of service. That was OK with her, she says. Because she had a few things she wanted to say.

Those few things are in the last chapter of her memoir Whispers of Hope: The Story of My Life, due to be launched on November 2. Which will give its readers one more chance to review her side of the story, a perspective that maintains that all the accusations against her – using a bat to threaten students, allowing manipulation of grades, fixing the books for students who had too many absences, mismanagement of money – were disproved. After her dismissal, she had sued HISD alleging age and racial discrimination as well as retaliation against her.

“I’ve been writing the book for years,” the 85-year-old Simmons said in a recent interview with the Houston Press. “I wrote the last part of the book when I settled with HISD in September 2018.” She says the only reason she took the $100,000 settlement instead of continuing to pursue it in court, was that she didn’t want the legal fighting to continue to be drawn out for her family. "I settled because I'm 85 years old and I have children and grandchildren and they didn't want me to spend the rest of my life fighting HISD."

We contacted HISD to see if they wanted to make any official statement and were told since they hadn’t seen the book, any comment would be premature at best, but they might want to comment after it comes out.

According to Simmons, she didn’t write her memoir in order to settle a score with HISD, but to say to readers that they should always have hope and keep working. Using her own life story as template, she writes about challenges, triumphs and setbacks with a focus on the evils of racism.

An early part of her story concerns growing up in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era complete with separate water fountains and entrances to businesses for whites and minorities. At age 10, during World War II, her best friend was Dorothy McGuire who was African American. They had been gathering scrap iron one summer's day to help the war and make some money and then decided to get some ice cream in town. That went sideways almost immediately when Dorothy told the young Bertie that because she was black, she wasn’t allowed to go in the front door.

“No, I can't. I'd be arrested. I have to go in the back,” Simmons says her friend told her. So Simmons decided to join her friend at the back door, a maneuver that enraged the shop owner. “Get back up front where you belong,” he told Simmons. He also told Simmons she was “going to pay for this. He meant for being back there.”

Months later in November,  Dorothy came over to say they were moving that day. Later that night, Simmons saw flashes of light through her window. “They were burning her house down. It was the Ku Klux Klan.  I thought I caused this by going to the back and I did. I did cause it. Because of that I was determined that I was going to change the world. At 10 years old I decided I was going to be fighting for social justice the rest of my life,” Simmons says.

Simmons’ home life wasn’t prosaic either. She says her father was abusive so she ran away at age 16 – she says he pointed a shotgun at her although she found out later he never meant to actually fire it. Eventually she went to live with an aunt and uncle so she could finish high school and then went on to Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana where she started out in dance but ended up in education.

After two years teaching math, English and a creative dance class in Kinder, LA., she moved to Houston when her husband got a job here. She went to the HISD administration building, then on Capitol Street and to her surprise was immediately hired to teach at an elementary school. Houston schools were all white or all black back then and integration came very slowly, she says.

She would go on to work as an educator in HISD for 58 years, receiving teaching honors and being promoted to principal and area superintendent positions under a number of superintendents including Billy Reagan, Joan Raymond, Abe Saavedra, Rod Paige. Terry Grier and Richard Carranza.

It wasn’t all a smooth ride, though. She was the District 8 superintendent when one of the school board members called her and told her to put a certain person in as principal at a certain elementary school. Simmons says she declined. “I said 'I can’t do that.' She said 'What? Don’t you know who I am? I'm a board member.' And I said 'Yes, but I know that’s not part of your job.' I said 'She doesn’t like kids and she doesn’t like teachers and I have to sleep at night. I can't make her a principal.'" The conversation continued for 30 minutes and was in the middle of Simmons' staff meeting. "I had her on speaker phone and everybody heard it. She told me 'You'd better do this or you're going to be in trouble.'

"That was on a Friday. On a Sunday I was called in and told I was being demoted. I was moved to the south area and my salary was frozen for three years."

After the passage of time and the arrival of Superintendent Rod Paige, Simmons was promoted again. The Texas Education Agency suggested there was cheating going on at two schools in the district and Simmons was assigned to investigate it. “We found clear evidence of cheating.” She turned in evidence to assistants in the superintendent’s office, she says. A short time later, though, both principals were lauded at a school board meeting for their accomplishments.

“I walked over to the retired center and retired,” she says. That was in 1995. She started working with Barbara Bush in a program called Kids Now for underprivileged children. 

Five years later, it was Superintendent Paige who persuaded her (it took him three tries) to come out of retirement at age 67 in 2000 to take on the principal job at Furr a predominantly Hispanic high school in the East End which at the time was beset with gang violence. They couldn’t have after-school activities; too many gang fights broke out. She wasn’t going to do it – the year before she had lost her 16-year-old granddaughter in a skiing accident – but she finally decided that Ashly, who she was very close to, would have wanted her to do that.

As the new principal, Simmons found out the school had gotten a special waiver from the state that even if students couldn’t pass the standardized test they had to take in the tenth grade, that if they had enough credits they could still move on to the 11th grade. As a result, a large number of kids were being held in ninth grade an extra year, getting enough credits to jump to their junior year without having to take a test that many of them couldn’t pass, she says. "Our enrollment was around 1,450 and about half of them were in ninth grade and they were 19 and 20 years old." Furr was tagged as a dropout factory, a high school with a direct pipeline to prison, she says. "The graduation rate was less than 50 percent."

A lot of the teachers and administrators didn’t like the changes she wanted to make, but she fared better with the students, she says. So much so, she says, that a group of them warned her that some of the teachers were trying to get them to key her car.

Two years after she started at Furr, she drove up to the school to find a full-scale fight was going on. An outside gang had come onto the campus. As has been told many times over, instead of sending all the miscreants to alternative school, in 2002 she made a deal with gang leaders that if there wouldn’t be any fights for the rest of the school year she would take them to New York City. Most of them didn’t believe 9/11 happened and none had been on a plane before. The district's Office of Strategic Management wouldn’t give her any money for the trip. "So I went back to the East End where there is no money. It's hard to raise funds in a poverty-stricken area." 

Simmons had previously  brought in the mother of Jon Stewart (in his Comedy Central days) as a educational consultant. "She heard about what I was trying to do and I started getting money from everywhere." Simmons not only took 32 gang members but the nine members of the National Honor Society the school had. In addition to their trip to the 9/11 site, they saw a Broadway show: 42nd Street.

She continued to occasionally butt heads with administrators. Her desire to do things her way which from time to time put her at odds with the equally determined Superintendent Terry Grier. He even put Simmons on a performance improvement plan, saying she sometimes was defending faculty she shouldn’t have defended. He called her into a meeting one day – probably tired of all the questions she was asking of him at principals meetings – and told her that if she needed information about anything to come to him, straight to the horse’s mouth. She replied that so many times she felt in her discussions with him she was talking to the other end. To his credit, Grier broke out in a laugh. In 2015 Grier presented her with an Excellence in Leadership award.

She says she loved Carranza and the things he was trying to do with the district. It was during his brief tenure that she accelerated her efforts to keep students in school rather than suspending them. In the process the school installed a “thinkery room,” the place where troubled and warring students could go to talk out their differences with a mediator and calm down. She says the graduation rate improved from below 50 percent to 90.  The thinkery room was a large part of why Furr became only one of ten schools across the country in 2016 to win a $10 million grant from the XQ Institute led by Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs.

But with the massive award came more problems for Simmons. The district wanted the money to go to its general coffers, not to just Furr High. But that was not how the program was designed and the XQ Institute said no; this was a grant that should go in total to the school.

About this time, the new East Area Superintendent Jorge Arredondo began coming to Furr not checking in with Simmons, she says, but talking to some of the teachers there that he knew.

HISD had decided to relax its stance on uniforms in schools after Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. But Simmons and some of her administrators felt they were necessary at Furr because they started to see increased gang activity with incoming ninth graders throwing gang signs, Simmons says. "We'd been down that gang road." She had bought uniforms for the ninth graders but Arredondo insisted she was operating counter to the district’s expressed directives. (She says she has a copy of a memo from Lamar High School at the same time indicating it was maintaining its uniform requirement.)

In any event it all came to a head as she was leaving work one day. She’d gotten in her car when “This lady showed up and tapped on my window. She said she was sorry—‘I have the greatest respect for you but I was told to deliver this letter to you’ – and handed her a piece of paper telling her that Arredondo was relieving her of duty, sending her home for threatening students which a bat (which Simmons says she'd done for years as a joke and never hit anyone.")

Sent home on a Friday, Simmons says by the next Monday Arredondo had called the Greater Houston Community Foundation which was overseeing the dispersal of the funds asking about Simmons' use of the grant money. This was followed by another call from someone at HISD asking that the $10 million be delivered to the district as a whole, Simmons says. "They wouldn't let them do it. The whole point was to keep it away from HISD so we could do the innovations that we had put in our grant."

What followed was a year in which an increasing number of accusations were made against Simmons and a number of people who worked with her – 11 employees were removed from Furr and sent to a warehouse to sit for the year while HISD investigated and Simmons countered.

In all these months, Simmons says, the internal auditors brought in by HISD, never talked with her. “I never had due process,” she says. Accused of doctoring grades, Simmons says when the district finally came up with a document purportedly signed by her allowing grade changes, "it was dated after I'd left."

According to Sharon Koonce, who was to have been the project manager over the $10 million grant, who was also accused in the HISD investigation and who received a $10,000 settlement, “We had folders that literally proved that each one of their allegations were not true. We went back and forth and the mediator took it back to the district and they ended up paying a bunch of money."

The ending to this bit of Simmons’ story is bittersweet. After she was removed from the school, the innovations described in the grant application, the ones that attracted the attention of the people handing out $10 million, were discarded.

Under the tenure of a new principal who was brought in (and lasted one year) a planned community center was scrapped, Simmons says. The Thinkery room was reassigned for other purposes. Suspensions rose again, mostly of African American students, she says. She is sad that the students didn’t get to benefit from what the $10 million was supposed to bring them.

She took her settlement money and gave it to others. And she is happy about the new book, hoping that its message about resilience and the evils of racism will resonate with readers recognizing the merits of the first and the destructive nature of the second.

"Most of my career has been working with underserved kids," she says.  "I thought I could not only educate the underserved but I could also educate the whites about how wrong [racism] is. Since I am white I thought they would listen to me."

She still hopes for the best for all the students in HISD. She's proud of what she accomplished, the kind of work she was able to do for the district, its students, parents and teachers. But clearly not all her memories are fond ones.

On November 2 from 5-7 p.m., the Houston Museum of African American Culture, 4807 Caroline, will host a book launch event for Dr. Bertie Simmons’s new book Whispers of Hope: The Story of My Life.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing