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Tributes paid to veteran educator and former senator

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Governor leads educators, administrators in paying tribute

The Governor, Rena Lalgie, said: “Like many of you, I was saddened to learn about the passing of Michelle Simmons. I offer my sincere condolences to Dr Simmons and her family. Senator Simmons was a valued member of the community having served on various boards and committees over a number of years. She retired in 2022 as vice-president of the Senate, having first been appointed as an independent senator in 2017.

“Her dedication to improving education in Bermuda was well known, and she accomplished much in her time as principal of the Berkeley Institute.”

Joan Dillas-Wright, the Senate President, said her friend “served the people and island of Bermuda very well”.

Mrs Dillas-Wright added: “Senator Simmons always prepared herself well for the Senate’s procedures, including researching all the legislation that was presented, including any prior legislation that reflected on the particular Bill.

“Senator Simmons was particularly interested in any legislation pertaining to schools and the education of our young people. She would review the budgets allocated to the schools as well as review the performance results of the schools particularly during the Budget debates. Other senators were very interested in whatever she had to say about the education of our Bermudian students.

“She also would contact individuals, groups and organisations which might be impacted by such legislation. Senator Simmons read vociferously regarding what was being done in other jurisdictions, and would refer to that information if pertinent.

“She had a keen sense of grammar and detail and would point out any discrepancies in the legislation. She was also the Senate representative on the joint select Private Bills Committee, which vetted changes to Bermuda’s laws.

“These facts were very pertinent when, following her re-appointment by John Rankin, the Governor, in November 2020, when the election of a Senate vice-president was constitutionally required.

“As vice-president, she was required to read and present the minutes for confirmation by the Senate. With her keen eye and command of the English language, the meetings of the Senate were more compelling.

Mrs Dillas-Wright praised Mrs Simmons in her role as vice-president, particularly in the wake of the presentation of the Budget, which she called “a pressured time”, as the Senate, in a committee presided over by the vice-president, must read, debate and vote on the Budget Estimates and the Appropriation Acts before the end of March each year.

Calvin White, the former chairman of the board of governors, and a fellow Berkeley class of 1968 graduate, said: “Michelle was a serious student, and very dedicated and diligent, and she applied herself to every topic.”

Asked about leading the process to choose a new principal in 1992, Mr White said the board had sought an educator who “would be instrumental in helping us implement” the changes planned by the Ministry of Education in the coming years.

He added: “We were obviously looking for a Bermudian, and wanted someone who had experience and credibility. We were looking for someone who would stay the course with us.

”It is important to let the country know that as principal Michelle was principled and was compassionate. She was in touch with her students — she was not the sort of teacher and principal to sit in an office and not be out an about. She definitely had the pulse of the school and was immensely helpful to the board and always backed what was best for the students.“

“Michelle was caring and compassionate, pastoral in nature, and had care for her students. Michelle Simmons always acted in the best interests of the Berkeley Institute and her students.“

Carol Swainson, the principal of Bermuda High School, said: “We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of senator Michelle Simmons, an extraordinary woman who has had a profound impact on our community through her excellence as an educator, leader and past senator.

“Michelle began her ten-year career at BHS as a chemistry teacher, and her passion for the subject matter together with her charismatic teaching style always resonated with the students she taught, and certainly influenced some into lifelong careers in the sciences.

“Her exceptional work ethic and commitment to educational excellence led to Michelle's rapid promotion to head the school's science department, and ultimately become the head of the secondary school.

“In this position Michelle flourished, and is fondly remembered as being a trusted adviser and astute leader. When we reflect on Michelle's distinguished service to both BHS and our entire local community during her lifetime, we are reminded of a truly remarkable woman who served as a female trailblazer, exemplifying empowerment and excellence.

“As head of school and on behalf of the board of trustees, we extend our deepest condolences to Michelle's family and friends.”

Anika M. DeShields, the chairperson of the Berkeley Educational Society, said: “We are very deeply saddened by the passing of Michelle Simmons.

“She first taught at the Berkeley Institute in the 1970s, then taught in London and Nigeria before returning to Bermuda as head of the senior department at Bermuda High School. She became the first female principal of the Berkeley Institute in 1993, holding the post for 21 years.

“In May this year, the Berkeley Educational Society was honoured to unveil portraits of the two most recent past principals of the Berkeley Institute, Mrs Simmons and her successor, Phyllis Curtis-Tweed, painted by Mr Otto Trott.

“We are happy that we were able to acknowledge and celebrate them during that ceremony. Senator Simmons and her husband, the Reverend Dr Erskine Simmons, have been great assets to the Berkeley Educational Society over the years.

“We extend our heartfelt condolences to her husband, sister, Sonia Grant, and extended family. This is another blow to the Berkeley family, as we have lost my predecessor, Sinclair White, one of our eldest Berkeleyites, Joan Dismont, and former Progressive Labour Party MP and member of the Berkeley Educational Society Stanley Morton.

“I attended the Berkeley when senator Simmons's predecessor was the principal. I met senator Simmons during her tenure as the head of the senior department at BHS, when I attended their senior year programme after graduating from the Berkeley Institute.

“Unbeknownst to me, she knew me, as she was a former classmate of my father's when they attended the Central School (now Victor Scott Primary). From humble beginnings to her positions in education locally and abroad, and later as a senator of Bermuda, she has indeed served the community well.

“On behalf of the Berkeley Educational Society, my family and myself, we extend our heartfelt condolences to senator Simmons's family.

Craig Bridgewater, chairman of the board of governors, the Berkeley Institute, said: “The day that Michelle D. G. Simmons assumed the principalship of her alma mater, the Berkeley Institute, she stepped into the history books — not only of our school but indeed of Bermuda.

“Becoming the school’s sixth principal, and the very first woman to be appointed by the governing body of the Berkeley Institute, Mrs. Simmons stepped into the path that had been previously forged by those that came before her — Mr George A. DaCosta, Mr W. Douglas Innis, Mr Roderick A. N. James, Mr F. S. Furbert, and the first Bermudian principal, and Dr Clifford Maxwell.

“Not unlike her predecessors, Mrs Simmons had a keen and demonstrated sense of history and tradition — sensitive to the vision and purpose of our founding fathers to offer educational opportunities to the people of Bermuda — irrespective of race, colour and gender.

“Mrs Simmons, not unlike F. S. Furbert in his day when he introduced commercial subjects and home economics, recognised the importance of a fully comprehensive curriculum to meet the aspirations of every single student that selected the Berkeley Institute to pursue secondary studies.

“This was manifestly demonstrated in the manner in which she managed the design and the transition from our site on St John’s Road to our present campus on Berkeley Road. Mrs Simmons’s anchor was a set of core values which continue to guide the school’s purpose to function as a premier senior secondary school.

“Mrs Simmons’s credentials and experiences are well documented, but I am persuaded based upon my personal and professional relationship with Mrs Simmons, that her life and her life’s work was divinely inspired.

“I am humbled as chairman and on behalf of the governing body of the Berkeley Institute to salute Mrs Simmons, whose contribution to Bermuda and the Berkeley Institute has no other pedestal. Her passing will indeed have an impact on me personally, the board of governors and the Berkeley family and the community as a whole. We owe her such a debt.”

Educator to the core: Michelle Simmons, the senator, saw the transformation of the Berkeley Institute into a comprehensive senior school, celebrated its 100th anniversary and oversaw the construction of a new campus and subsequent move in 2006. After retiring from teaching, she was appointed to the Senate for five years and retired in 2022 (File photograph)

Michelle Simmons, the first woman to be the full-time principal of The Berkeley Institute and who shepherded it through comprehensive changes to Bermuda’s public secondary school system and the construction of a new campus and subsequent move, has died aged 70.

Mrs Simmons became the sixth principal of the school in 1993, taking over from the acting principal, Patricia Holder. She retired in 2014.

The historically academic school was transformed into one of only two senior high schools available in the public school system as part of the end of the “11-plus” transfer examination in 1997. That year also saw the celebration of the school’s 100th anniversary.

The construction of the campus and the adoption of a new curriculum was not without its difficulties, but it was Mrs Simmons who managed the complex process.

Mrs Simmons opened the new Berkeley Institute campus in August 2006, after 104 years, across Berkeley Road.

She had led a handpicked team of teachers who worked closely with the Bermuda Union of Teachers and the Senior School Review Team along with Civil Service technical advisers from the Ministry of Education.

The veteran teacher retired from the Upper House of Parliament last August after a five-year tenure.

Guiding hands: Michelle Simmons, the sixth principal of The Berkeley Institute, right, with Keisha Douglas, the school’s eighth principal, during formal celebrations of its 125th anniversary last year. Mrs Simmons, a former senator, died on August 11 (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

On Saturday, Walter Roban, the Deputy Premier, remembered Mrs Simmons as an “outstanding educator who served with distinction as the first woman principal of the Berkeley Institute”.

Mr Roban said: “Countless students and parents have benefited from her sound advice and commitment to excellence in education.”

He added: “Even after a lifetime of service in education, senator Simmons answered the call once again and gave of herself as a firmly independent voice on legislation and the issues of the day.

“On behalf of the Government and people of Bermuda, I express sincere condolences to her husband, Reverend Dr Erskine Simmons, and her entire family, and trust that they will draw comfort at this difficult time from the incredible legacy of this dignified and committed woman of excellence.”

Opposition Senate leader Ben Smith said: “I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Mrs Simmons’s passing. I would like to give my sincere condolences on behalf of my Senate team.

“She was always a bright light in the Senate and a thoughtful debater. Our time together in the Senate was brief but memorable. My deepest condolences to her family during this difficult time.”

Mrs Simmons was born in 1952 to Phillip and Marjorie Grant of Devonshire and was sister to the lawyer Sonia Grant, the former head of the Berkeley board of governors and deputy mayor of Hamilton.

Before entering Berkeley at age 10, she was educated at the private Tankard School on Ewing Street in Hamilton, and the former Central School on The Glebe Road, Pembroke (now Victor Scott).

Principled and compassionate: Michelle Simmons observes the work of a Berkeley Institute pupil in 2003

She graduated from Berkeley in 1968 earning the coveted honour of Top Girl.

A year of secondary study followed in 1969 at the Sixth Form Centre — a predecessor of the Bermuda College — where she acquired A Levels in chemistry, physics and mathematics.

Mrs Simmons completed her undergraduate studies in biochemistry at the University of Liverpool, which she completed with honours.

A postgraduate certificate in education was received from the University of Reading in 1975.

Shortly after that, Mrs Simmons returned to Bermuda to teach at the Berkeley, before returning to England in 1978 to be with her first husband, Ola Gabisi, a Sierra Leonean educator.

She taught A-level and O-level chemistry at Latymer School in London for three years before the Gabisis moved to Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Mrs Simmons worked at River State School of Basic Studies as a chemistry lecturer in charge of the practical programme she set up, while her husband worked for the Federal Government College.

The couple moved to Bermuda in 1982, and she taught at Warwick Secondary for one term before becoming a chemistry and physics teacher at the Bermuda High School for Girls.

During her ten years teaching at BHS, Mrs Simmons rose to become the head of the seniors student department, organised a student leadership conference and developed a system of staff evaluation in addition to heading the school’s secondary department.

Mrs Simmons was praised in Parliament and by The Royal Gazette for the speedy implementation of the recommendations of the 2006 Hopkins Report on education reform.

Guiding hands: the senator and former Berkeley Institute principal, Michelle Simmons, left, stands with her successor, Phyllis Curtis-Tweed, as portraits painted by Otto Trott are unveiled at the Pembroke school in April (Photograph from the Berkeley Educational Society)

The GCSE programme was reintroduced, and the school became an internationally accredited senior secondary school.

As a senator, Mrs Simmons backed sweeping changes to the education system, which have moved a step closer after The Education Amendment Act 2021 was passed in the Senate.

The amendment will abolish middle schools and replace them with new “signature schools”.

The new schools will have signature learning programmes added to the regular curriculum.

Mrs Simmons married the Reverend Dr Erskine Simmons, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, in 2006 and is survived by him and several stepchildren.

• Michelle Phyllis Grant Gabisi Simmons, the sixth principal of The Berkeley Institute and an independent senator, was born on October 20, 1952 and died on August 11, 2023

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Published August 14, 2023 at 7:56 am (Updated August 14, 2023 at 7:56 am)

Tributes paid to veteran educator and former senator

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