Establish a non-graded, mixed-age program for grades K through 12. The instruction would be personalized based on the needs, talents and passions of the individual student. Students would progress through the system based on the accomplishments of the required essential knowledge and skills and would not be grouped by age nor assigned grade level.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Bertie Simmons.
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 grant through the XQ Super School Project. Simmons’ school was one of 10 selected from nearly 700 schools nationwide for “reimagining high school education.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
The “backstory” of what brought me to the career pathway of education was the result of an experience I had as a ten-year-old girl. I grew up in north Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, and I lived in the country just outside a small town. A Black family with a ten-year-old girl moved into a house near me. She and I became close friends. We spent a glorious summer swinging on vines and sitting on a y-shaped limb of an oak tree, one on each side. We could kick the ground and bounce up and down. This was during the World War II. We gathered scrap iron to help the war effort and earned four quarters each. We ran the distance into town to buy ice cream which at the time was a nickel a cone. When we reached the grocery store, my friend, Dorothy, pulled her hand from my grip and said she could not go in there. I asked her why and she said it was because she was colored. She said she had to go to the back door, so I told her I was going with her and we skipped down the alley between the grocery store and a feed store. When we reached the back door, Dorothy rapped on the door and no one came. She did that three times and still, no one came. I knew they had heard her, and I started beating on the door with both fists. The door flew open and there stood the owner with a red face and bulging eyes. He started yelling at Dorothy. When he saw me, he yelled for me to go back up front where I belonged. When I refused, he told me my parents would hear about this and I would pay for going to the back. I was perplexed.
Shortly afterward, Dorothy ran to my house and told me they were moving. I replied, “You cannot leave because we promised to be friends forever.” She hugged me, and I felt both our hearts beating wildly. She said she must leave but we would be friends forever. As she was running, she turned to look at me, and I saw fear in her eyes.
Later that night I saw flames flickering on my window. When I rushed to the window, I saw men in white robes and pointed white hats laughing as they burned Dorothy’s house down. I ran to the porch yelling, “Stop laughing. This is not funny.” That night I made up my mind to do whatever I could do in life to ensure that never happened to anyone again. Later I decided I would go into education so I could teach students that we are all more alike than different, that we should show respect to all and celebrate our differences. I vowed to make the world a better place for all people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The most interesting story that happened to me was when I was called out of retirement to become the principal of a gang-infested high school. I returned from a meeting in August 2001, and there was a riot on campus. Ambulances were carrying away students and police who had been injured. I was horrified and uncertain about what I should do. My assistant principals said they were sending 32 gang members to an alternative school to get them off campus. I knew we had always done that, and it never changed student behavior. So, I said I would not do that. They told me I would probably be fired for breaking the rules. I replied that it might be a blessing. Another rule was that we must never bring warring gangs together. When I told the assistant principals that I was going to bring all 15 gangs together, they said I would definitely be fired. I replied that I had to do what I thought was right. When I called the 32 gangsters together, there was a lot of mean-mugging going on. Finally, I asked what I could do to bring peace into their lives and into the school. They told me they trusted no one except their gang. Then one said they did not think 9/11 had really happened. Others chimed in and said it was just movies to fool them because they were poor and minorities. When I told them I knew it had happened, one said, “Miss if you believe that, you are dumber than we are!”
I asked if I took them all to New York to see Ground Zero, would they trust me and the system more. There was dead silence. Then one asked, “Miss, would you drive us?” I. I told him that I was an old woman and I could not drive a bunch of thugs to New York City. Suddenly they began laughing because I had called them thugs. They began to open up and talk with me and even signed a contract that there would be no gang fights for the remainder of that year, and I planned to take them to New York in June. The district and the teachers in my school disapproved of my ideas. They said I was rewarding the wrong behavior. The teachers thought that if anyone went to New York City it should be the members of the National Honor Society. I was able to obtain funds to take nine members of the National Honor Society and 32 gang members to New York. Not only did they see Ground Zero, but I also took them to the Broadway play, 42nd Street. The members of the gangs and the National Honor Society became friends, and we had no other gang fights on campus. I learned from this that when one shows respect, the respect is reciprocated.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Two exciting new projects that I am working on are the Institute for Civility in Government and the Worldwide Civility Counsel. These projects involve learning to practice civility in all levels of interactions as we become more civil in our everyday lives. Both of these groups reach out to others locally, across the country, and internationally to function as magnets bringing people with disparate ideas together and enable them to learn to communicate in a civil manner.
I am also working with two local organizations, Community Thinkers and Hour of Power, to improve race relations in our communities. It is my hope that these meaningful conversations will lead to action, and effect change to make the world a better place for all people.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
Being an authority in a particular field is often a matter of perception. However, I did spend 58 years in education. I served as a teacher, instructional specialist, elementary school principal, high school principal, assistant superintendent, area superintendent and assistant superintendent of campus management where I was over more than 300 schools. While I served in these positions, I was a transformational leader and worked with, primarily, underserved students. As a transformational leader, I was able to inspire students and adults to achieve at a level they once believed impossible. During my tenure, I received numerous awards including teacher of the year, HEB Best Principal in Texas, Spirit of Texas Award, Houston Independent School District Excellence in Leadership of the Year, Distinguished Graduate Award from Sam Houston State University, and the City of Houston Apple Award. Through a collaborative, creative culture of caring, hope and possibilities, my team and I achieved unbelievable results in the areas of student achievement, community involvement, and strategic partnerships. Perhaps these accomplishments do make me something of an authority in the field of education.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
The way I would rate the US education system on a scale from 1 to 10 would be a 4. I believe the system is too tied to the past, and we continue to do things the way we have always done them whether they are working or not. In many cases, the teacher is still the “fount of knowledge” at the risk of diminishing the opportunity for students to become real problem-solvers and life changers. The current education system throughout the country is, for the most part, evaluated based on state tests which encourage teachers to “drill and kill” for the test.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?
Five areas that I consider to be great are:
- Magnet schools that capitalize on the talents and interests of individual students,
- A few schools that provide “wrap-around” services that address the needs of the whole child, and are involved in problem-based learning,
- State and district charter schools that are designed to meet the needs of the specific learning styles of students,
- A few teachers who are risk-takers and willing to personalize instruction, and
- Those few schools that focus on the needs of students rather than the adults in the system.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
The recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reflect only minimum growth over the last decade at grade levels 4, 8, and 12 in the areas of math, science and technology. This is especially true for Blacks and Hispanics. It reflects that the achievement gap between Whites who score higher than Blacks and Hispanics has not been closed significantly. These data reflect that students have not been engaged in STEM in a way that ensures success for all student groups. Student engagement could be increased by the following:
- Stress STEM programs in all schools beginning in the early elementary grades.
- Establish STEM programs in the early grades to capture the interests of children that will last throughout the later grades.
- Have coding camps where students learn skills and their application.
- Train teachers at all levels to become more proficient in the areas of math, science, engineering, and technology so they could not only teach facts, but also teach the application of these skills.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Historically, girls have been exposed at an early age to images of male mathematicians and scientists. Girls enter STEM fields at a dramatically lower rate than males. Perhaps this could be because of these early images. In many cases girls score higher in math and science on tests and yet, there is a disparity between the number of males and the number of females who enter the field of engineering and computer science. This results in a gender gap which widens the longer girls are in school and is often compounded by issues of class and race. Perhaps this disparity in STEM professions is because of the fact that girls don’t identify with the areas of math, science, engineering and technology. Girls should have the right to pursue careers in those areas that would provide professional satisfaction and higher compensation when compared to traditional roles for women.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
The US is doing a less than adequate job engaging girls and women in STEM subjects. In elementary schools, most teachers are women, and they have a reluctance to teach math and science. Research indicates that in high schools most teachers of math, science, engineering, and technology are males which contributes to the bias. Three ways we could increase this engagement of girls in STEM subjects are:
- Teachers must convey to students a belief that all students can learn and be successful. Schools could foster a growth mindset in students by emphasizing that practice rather than innate ability improves performance. The school should commit to teaching students that intelligence is not fixed and can be improved through hard work and persistence.
- Images of females engaged in STEM work should be displayed throughout the school and classrooms and develop partnerships with women who are successfully involved with STEM fields. Create a school of intentionality where nothing is left to chance, and females are hired to teach STEM classes.
- Students work in groups led by female students as they conduct research about women who have been successful in the STEM fields. Have students create videos or documentaries that reflect the accomplishments of these individuals. Groups might write scenarios that could be performed as one-act plays.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
On the debate between STEM and STEAM, I am deeply committed to teaching STEAM. The reason for my position is that the skills of the 21st century are naturally embedded in a STEAM program. I agree with Dr. Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of education at Harvard University, when he said, “…everyone deserves to learn about the arts and humanities just as much as they deserve to learn about maths and the sciences.” The use of STEAM education encourages students to take responsible risks while they participate in problem-solving in a collaborative way and experiential learning. They engage in a creative process and have opportunities in real life experiences. STEAM students are learners of 21st century skills. As a result, they will be the innovators, leaders, and educators of the future.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The five things I would change about the educational infrastructure are:
1) Establish a non-graded, mixed-age program for grades K through 12. The instruction would be personalized based on the needs, talents and passions of the individual student. Students would progress through the system based on the accomplishments of the required essential knowledge and skills and would not be grouped by age nor assigned grade level.
— Example-When I served as the Area Superintendent, I supervised and supported such a program and watched as students progressed through the system in a confident, joyful manner. A research study conducted by Texas A & M University compared students in an elementary non-graded program to students in an elementary gifted and talented program. One finding they considered to be significant was that the students in the non-graded program demonstrated a confidence in their ability to learn and a positive self-esteem that was greater than that of the gifted students. They also found that the students in the non-graded program could identify the strengths of other students in their mixed-age group with no regard for their ages or assigned grade level. The researcher asked each student a question such as, “If you need help in math, which other student would you go to?” In mixed-aged classes, students consistently identified help from another student regardless of their age or traditional grade level. Gifted and talented students did not demonstrate that ability.
2) Provide middle and high school students various pathways from which they could choose. That would give them voice and choice.
— One example was when I was a high school principal, we had a pathway known as Alternative Forms of Energy. At the end of each six weeks, we had capstone projects where students presented their learnings to central office administrators, parents, and business or industry representatives. At one such event, students had built solar ovens and had intended to serve omelets to the guests. It rained for 5 days before the event, so there was no energy to heat the ovens. This provided the students an opportunity to make their presentation one of describing the advantages and disadvantages of solar energy.
3) Design programs that do not require that students be confined to a classroom in a brick and mortar school. Learning could take place in the out-of-doors or any community, commercial or industrial facility related to the subjects being taught.
— When I was principal at the high school, one of the pathways was Place-based Education which connects people to people and people to nature. These individuals worked with the city to establish a community garden which supplied retired residents of the area with food. They also worked at “greening” the east side of town and with various organization focused on sustainability of the environment.
4) Eliminate the use of state and national tests to determine the students’ degree of learning that propels them through the system and qualifies them to graduate. Discontinue the use of these test results to evaluate the performance of school personnel.
— During a period in my educational career, I was called out of retirement to assume the position of principal of a troubled high school known as a “through-away school, a drop-out factory, and a direct pipeline from high school to prison”. No one else would take the job. Soon after my arrival, we missed meeting the requirements of the state tests by 2 students who had been sent to an alternative school, I received a call from the superintendent informing me I would be removed from the position because of the scores on the state test. However, that night, I received another call saying they had changed their minds, and I would remain at the school. Eventually, this school received a ten-million-dollar grant for rethinking high schools. This experience taught me why teachers and principals focus on meeting the standards of the state test rather than teaching 21st century skills necessary for life.
5) Restructure the entire student discipline system which would move from one of being punitive to one of restoring relationships. The old-fashioned system of suspending or expelling students or punishing them in other ways is counterproductive to one that encourages the teaching of 21st century skills.
When I was a high school principal of the “through-away school”, we implemented a Restorative Discipline Program where we did not suspend or expel students unless it was required by the law. We opened a “Thinkery” where our mediator worked with our students, teachers, and parents to restore relationships. Each individual who attended mediation meetings in the Thinkery were to choose a disposition to which they were committed as a means of improving the relationships. The Thinkery was a social skills builder. Should the problems continue to exist, that individual was referred to a student court where all consequences assigned by the student jurors were of an academic nature. To ensure that we followed the FERPA law, parents were required to sign off on their students attending the student court, and jurors were required to take an oath of confidentiality. Our drop-out rate became almost non-existent.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite “Life Lessons Quote” is one by Harriet Peet when she said, “There are two types of teachers of whom we have reason to be proud. There are those who teach us facts, who lay a firm foundation, and on that foundation, erect the tower of knowledge, four-square and firmly built. We owe much to them. But there is another rarer type of teacher to whom we owe more still. They are teachers with a view of life who open our eyes to a new way of doing things and help us to see life in a different way. We remember these teachers, not so much, perhaps, by the impression they make at the moment, as by the way in which the mind returns with growing understanding and gratitude to an inspiration which the passage of time does nothing to dim. The Greeks were that type teacher, for they have given us two things which everyone needs, two things that education must give if it is to be education at all. First, a certain academic attitude and second, a view of life. If we can give our students these two things, then we will have given them the chief tools they will need for their journey through the world.”
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Or on her website
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!