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At Furness High, a tough choice looms

An empty physics classroom.
Photo: Benjamin Herold

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Benjamin Herold

for the Notebook and WHYY/NewsWorks

Horace Furness High School saved Felly Velicia, so the District’s pending decision about whether to close the school couldn’t be more personal for the 18-year-old from Indonesia.

“You know the feeling if you’ve lived in a house, and you grew up there, and you have to leave?” she asked. “I won’t know where to come running to.”

Velicia endured significant family trauma and difficult stints at two other area high schools before finally finding a home at Furness, located at 3rd and Mifflin Streets in South Philadelphia. Now a freshman at Eastern University, with her only living parent across the globe, Velicia said she regularly returns to Furness in search of support and encouragement.

“This is where my family are,” she said.

Furness is unusual as a safe, racially harmonious, academically successful neighborhood high school.

But because it is located in an ancient facility that has become a fiscal albatross for the cash-strapped School District, the school could soon be shuttered – a stark example of the difficult choices facing officials as they implement a facilities master plan with the goal of shedding 40,000 “empty seats” in schools across the city.

Officials say they will reveal specific recommendations for school closings, consolidations, and other reconfigurations later this month. Dozens of schools could be affected.

A draft “preliminary options report” obtained and published by the Notebook in June listed Furness as one of 26 schools under consideration to be closed.

While stressing that the options in that draft have changed considerably since then, District officials have been consistent about the need to “rightsize” and become more efficient in this era of scarce resources and changing demographics.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” said Danielle Floyd, the District’s deputy for strategic initiatives.

Nevertheless, decisions about what to do with successful schools in financially unsustainable buildings will not be easy, she said.

“There’s one story that a spreadsheet tells you,” said Floyd. “But then you go to a school like Furness, and there’s that ‘soft data’ that’s equally important.”

A money pit?

In considering the possible closing and consolidation of specific high schools, the District has so far relied primarily on the information contained in its spreadsheets, rather than on input from people on the ground.

Floyd said she has focused her energies on visits to elementary and middle schools. With just a few weeks to go before the District’s final recommendations are made to the School Reform Commission, she has not yet visited Furness or any other high school potentially jeopardized by the facilities plan.

“We’re now at the [stage] that requires going out to schools and listening and asking questions,” said Floyd. “Just understand the difficulty of trying to do that at [270-plus] schools.”

Looking at what the spreadsheets say about Furness, the clear conclusion to be drawn is that keeping the school in its current building doesn’t make sense.

In recent years, the District has poured over $1.5 million into the nearly 100-year old facility, much of it in a losing battle with moisture that has been seeping through a leaky roof and a crumbling brick exterior.

A tour showed extensive water damage in classrooms and hallways. The second floor of the otherwise beautiful auditorium is unusable. The fourth floor has been closed off due to water damage and asbestos contamination, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to remediate.

“Where we can address issues, we have,” said Floyd.

But the District’s maintenance staff and budget only go so far, and officials may conclude they can get more bang for their buck elsewhere – especially since Furness also has a shrinking student enrollment.

The school now has about 600 students, down from about 1,200 in 2000.

Small schools advocates say that size is ideal, but the District prefers its high schools with 1,000 to 1,200 students and notes that Furness is operating at less than half capacity.

Floyd also noted that in 2010, almost three-quarters of the high school-aged students living within Furness’s boundary opted for other schools, mostly magnets and charters.

So what options are there other than closure?

She wouldn’t talk specifics, but it’s clear that Furness’s future is tenuous.

“Every situation presents a unique challenge,” said Floyd. “I hope people truly begin to see how difficult doing a long-range plan for a school district can be.”

‘It’s all about people’

For Velicia, though, none of that really matters.

What’s more important to her is the way the world opened up after friendly staff members listened to her grueling personal story without judgment. With their encouragement, she joined the choir, rekindling her love of music. She started a chapter of DREAM Activist, enlisting students and staff in fighting for immigrants’ rights. She graduated first in her class.

“The teachers are like my own parents,” Velicia said. “They cared about me.”

That is music to the ears of Tim McKenna, Furness’s fourth-year principal.

“It’s all about people,” said McKenna. “We have a great teaching staff, and we have great students, so that overcomes a lot of the issues with the physical plant.”

Roughly 40 percent of the students are African American and 38 percent are Asian. But Furness has avoided the racial violence that has plagued nearby South Philadelphia High, where many of Furness’ students would likely be reassigned.

In 2009-10, Furness had 673 students and 17 serious incidents. South Philly had 965 students and 75 serious incidents, including a horrifying day of assaults against Asian students that prompted the intervention of the U.S. Justice Department.

“We don’t have any of those conflicts here at Furness,” said math and special education teacher Alfonzo Brown. “Furness has always [drawn] all types of kids.”

He would know. His family has been in the neighborhood since 1922, and his mother briefly attended Furness over 60 years ago.

Brown himself attended the school in the 1960s, when Furness was still a junior high. By the early 1980s, he was back as a math teacher. He never left.

“You remember ‘Welcome Back Kotter’? That’s what it was like,” said Brown. “All the people embraced me, and it’s been a positive experience ever since.”

The positives extend to academics. In 2010-11, Furness was one of only two neighborhood high schools to meet its federally mandated achievement targets. In 2011, 58 percent of 11th graders scored proficient or above on state math tests, and 43 percent were proficient in reading – both well above average for comprehensive high schools.

McKenna said that staff and students work hard to not let problems with the building “become an excuse.”

New-look SRC on the hot seat

For her part, Floyd recognizes that good things are happening at Furness. Its reputation and track record will figure in the District’s decision-making, she said.

“They found a way to make it work” at Furness, said Floyd. “It’s difficult because this [facilities planning process] is not supposed to be an indictment of the staff or the students or the administration here.”

On his end, McKenna says he recognizes the District’s challenges.

“I understand from a business aspect that things have to change [with] so many empty seats in the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, the final decisions will be in the hands of the city’s reconstituted School Reform Commission. Its three brand-new members will have to quickly absorb information and data on what could be dozens of school closure proposals.

After District staff make public their recommendations later this month, there will be a state-mandated three-month window for public hearings – enough time, said a District spokesperson, for the new commissioners to be “fully briefed.”

For those most attached to schools like Furness, however, already strong emotions are likely to just get stronger.

“I think it would be a travesty of educational justice if they were to close Furness down,” said long-time teacher Brown. “I know a large number of people in this neighborhood, and many of them would be hurt. It would send such shock waves through this community, I don’t even think the politicians could be able to handle what the end result might be.”

Postscript: Furness will be the site of a press conference on Monday in which District officials, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, union officials and others will urge the passage of President Obama’s American Jobs Act, which would bring $400 million in school modernization funds to Philadelphia.

Listen to Benjamin Herold’s WHYY radio report from Furness High School.

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