Former Teacher Comes Out Of Retirement To Be School's Principal David Greene profiles Bertie Simmons, an 81-year-old former teacher who came out of retirement to take over as principal of Furr High School in Houston, Texas.
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Former Teacher Comes Out Of Retirement To Be School's Principal

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Former Teacher Comes Out Of Retirement To Be School's Principal

Former Teacher Comes Out Of Retirement To Be School's Principal

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/460906955/460906958" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fifteen years ago, Bertie Simmons took over as principal of Furr High School in Houston Texas. At the time, that school was one of the toughest and poorest in the city. It was a battleground for more than a dozen gangs. Barely half of the students graduated. Simmons says when she thought about the school, the Langston Hughes poem "Dream Deferred" kept running through her mind. It goes like this. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun or fester like a sore and then run?

BERTIE SIMMONS: Does it stink like rotten meat or sugar over like syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode? And we were having explosions all over that campus.

GREENE: Bertie Simmons is 81 years old, and she is firmly in charge at Furr High School. She came out of retirement to become the principal. She had already had a long career with the Houston public schools. But in her mid-60s, her granddaughter died in a skiing accident. That death pushed Simmons to leave retirement behind and try to accomplish what her granddaughter had dreamed of, doing a little good in the world.

SIMMONS: Furr High School is in the deep east end of Houston. If you're going out there, if you're driving out of town, you would think you're going to run off the face of the earth before you get to it. And I will never forget the feeling I had as I drove over that Ship Channel, wondering when I was driving into.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMMONS: Even before school started that morning, one gang member threw another one through a plate glass window at the front of the school. The kid had blood coming from his throat, and the nurse was out there trying to take care of him. And I walked out and thought, I must be some kind of crazy old woman to be out here thinking I can make a difference in this school. The following week, the kid who threw that gangster through the window was killed in a drive-by shooting in the neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMMONS: Langston Hughes also said, bring me your dreams, your heart melodies, that I might wrap them in sky-blue cloth far away from the two rough fingers of the world. And that's want I wanted us all to do, was to get the students to bring us their dreams so that we could protect those dreams and help them to grow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMMONS: I personally get to know each one of the students in the school. Most of my time is spent listening and working with individual students because if we don't give them a chance to deal with some of those issues that they bring to school, then we don't get to the academics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMMONS: Our graduation rate now is in the 90s. And often I am at odds with the policies that are made by the school district. It's like the only thing that matters is whether a kid can pass a test or not, the test that somebody else has decided that they need. I think the skills that these kids are going to need are not skills that are being taught in school. I think they need to be creative. I think they need to be problem solvers. I think we need in school to give them those opportunities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMMONS: They are going to be moving into a new building in 2017. I want this school to have been totally transformed before we move into that new building, where we don't have bells, where we don't have all the rules that keep kids from progressing at his or her own rate of speed because our high schools have been frozen in time. We are still doing the things - same things we've done for years, and it hasn't worked. So I want it to be different.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMMONS: I can't figure out exactly why they let me stay, and I kept asking, why haven't I been fired? But a lot of people like what's going on in our school. And I don't know. I've often wondered. I've thought, surely they'll fire me this year, but they haven't.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That is Bertie Simmons, the 81-year-old principal of Furr High School in Houston, Texas.

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