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The New Language of Furr

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Last month I visited Furr High School in Houston, Texas to present a College Board Inspiration Award for tremendous academic improvement. One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Dr. Bertie Simmons, the woman almost single-handedly responsible for Furr's dramatic turnaround.

Ten years ago Dr. Simmons was a retired District Superintendent, spending time with her family and consulting on the side. After years of hard work, she was finally enjoying the simple pleasures of life. So when she first got the call to come out of retirement and become principal of Furr High, her answer was decisive: "No."

Unfortunately, her retirement was soon interrupted by tragedy. Dr. Simmons' 16-year-old granddaughter was fatally injured in a skiing accident. Dr. Simmons was distraught, and once again, turned down the chance to lead Furr.

But the school was persistent, and when she got the call a third time, Dr. Simmons thought of her granddaughter -- a young girl who had wanted to make the world a better place for all people, but never got the chance. In that moment, Dr. Simmons decided that reinventing Furr would be her tribute to her granddaughter.

She would later find out that no one else had wanted the job. It didn't take long to learn why.

On her first day, Dr. Simmons was greeted by the sight of brutal gang violence. The school had 14 gangs, all at war, and one gang member had thrown another through a plate glass window. She also found out some gang members had a contract on the previous principal's life.

"It was sad," she said. "This school was on the national list of drop-out factories."

As a retired superintendent, she was only supposed to be there for three months. The district had brought her in as a fixer, and paid her the equivalent of a custodian's salary. But when she was asked to stay on for the sake of the school, she said could only muster one response: "Yes."

"I'm here on a mission," Dr. Simmons said. "I'm not here as a principal."

Which was good, because at first the teachers did not accept her as their principal. They tried to force her out, blackening her office walls with cigarette smoke and leaving piles of cigarette butts in her toilet. They switched out her comfortable desk chair for an old rickety model and replaced her beautiful desk with a battered one from the trash bin. They even tried to pay gang members to vandalize her car.

Rather than giving her detractors the satisfaction of victory, Dr. Simmons just kept sitting in that chair, working at that desk, doing the job she was hired to do. Eventually, she felt she had made some progress.

But a few months later, there was a riot at Furr. Gangs from outside the school had raided the campus, threatening to undo Dr. Simmons' hard work.

When the dust settled, the Assistant Principals wanted to send some of the students to an alternative school. Dr. Simmons said no. She didn't want them to come back worse behaved than they already were.

So she sat them down and asked what it would take to bring peace into their lives and to the Furr campus.

Surprisingly, they gave her a political answer. In the months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, these students, all African-American and Latino, had felt betrayed by their government. They thought that 9/11 was fake -- that the footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center and the towers collapsing was produced by the government. And that the government had thought they were not intelligent enough to know the difference, because they were poor and minority.

So what did Dr. Simmons do? Did she arrange for a guest speaker? Did she try to teach them the truth herself? Did she dismiss their concerns altogether? No. Instead, she took 32 gang members, none of whom had ever been on an airplane, to Ground Zero. They saw the empty footprints. They walked the hallowed ground. They prayed in Trinity Church.

Dr. Simmons also took them to the United Nations, to Chinatown, to Central Park, to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. They even saw a Broadway show.

In one trip, these kids saw more of the world than they had seen their entire lives.

When they got back to Houston, the violence abruptly stopped. There was finally time to focus on schoolwork, leading to a 22 percent increase in the number of students taking at least one AP exam. Dr. Simmons was able to hire good teachers with new skills. The school was free to blossom into an environment of academic rigor -- a place with high expectations and zero tolerance for apathy.

Today, when you patrol the halls with Dr. Simmons, you can't move more than five feet without stopping. She says hello to everyone she passes. She thanks the custodial staff for their hard work, telling them, "Great job!" or "That looks really clean!" Some students just walk up to her, give her a hug and go on their way.

College pennants line the walls, and inspirational phrases hang above the doors.

"We teach. We learn. We Succeed."

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has," a quote by Margaret Mead.

This is the language of the new Furr. Courtesy of Dr. Bertie Simmons. I know that her granddaughter would be proud.