Sep 23rd 2016 | Posted in Education by Priscilla Loebenberg

Houston’s Furr High School is helping redesign secondary education in America. The school was recently awarded a $10 million Super School Project grant from the XQ Institute.  Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, chairs the institute’s board of directors and guides its mission to overhaul the public school system.

Furr’s principal, Dr. Bertie Simmons, said the key to the school’s plan to rethink education is providing personalized instruction for students based on their passions.

“We are offering more opportunities for students to assume responsibilities for their own learning,” said Simmons.

Dr. Bertie Simmons

Dr. Bertie Simmons

The high school will use a competency-based curriculum and students will progress at their own rate, depending on how quickly they master each competency. Two days a week, students will pursue their interests during genius hours. Among many options during this time, students could attend a Socratic seminar or take 82-year-old Simmons’ class – social justice through hip-hop and rap.

The grant makers praised Furr for providing students a school that empowers them to tackle environmental injustice and become a green hub for its community. The school will have a focus on restorative justice and become green ambassadors in environmental sustainability research projects.

Next year, when students move into the new Furr High School, which was already under construction before the grant was awarded, the facility will include wrap-around services, such as a health clinic. The school will also be used as a community center. However, Simmons pointed out that the new buildings will not be what makes the school special.

“Much of the learning will not be in the brick and mortar walls of the school,” she said.

With a focus on environmental and nutritional science, the students will spend much of their time out of school. Simmons said students will be building an arboretum in an adjacent park. They will go to other schools and give presentations on topics like pollinators and greening America.

Simmons said the school has many partners and works with the Parks and Wildlife Department as well as the Forest Service. Students will also complete internships at other organizations and teachers will do externships with those companies.

More than 95 percent of the students at Furr receive free or reduced lunch and — before Simmons came out of retirement in 2001 to take over the school — it was known as a dropout factory. Today, the graduation rate is over 90 percent. Students are not suspended unless legally required. Instead, Simmons said she uses restorative discipline.

Simmons credits innovative teaching methods and high engagement for the school’s dramatic turnaround. However, many point to Simmons’ philosophy as a crucial factor. Civility is the ideal Simmons has worked to instill in students. They work with the Institute for Civility and focus on civil discourse as well as giving back. Last year, she said students took a cultural trip to Cambodia. With some of the grant funds, Simmons expects students to take even more life-changing field trips.

“Next year we are sending students to Japan to help earthquake victims,” said Simmons.