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.