Furness fosters a diverse story


By pretty much all accounts, Furness is a family. And the principal is living proof. Daniel Peou was a Furness student and teacher before he took the reins of the school, and on Friday he led a celebration of 100 years with the doors open at 1900 S. Third St.

The Pennsport-based high school prides itself on being an international community, one that Peou, a refugee from Cambodia, is proud to see as a space where students of any nation can thrive.

“When you work you will succeed,” the principal told an auditorium full of students in an assembly before a celebratory multicultural fair. “It does not matter where you came from, it’s about how much you want it, and today we’re going to celebrate 100 years of Furness, but we’re also going to celebrate us.”

The event also featured student artwork and a thorough presentation on Furness’ long history. The school was named after Horace Howard Furness, a Philadelphia native, Harvard alum and notorious Shakesperean scholar who died in 1912 in Wallingford.

In the first 15 years of the 20th century, Philadelphia built a slew of schools in South Philadelphia, including: Southwark, 1835 S. Ninth St.; Abigail Vare, formerly 1619 E. Moyamensing Ave.; Nebinger, 601 Carpenter St.; Taggart, 400 W. Porter St.; and Jenks, 2501 S. 13th St. Construction of Furness began in ’13 and graduated its first class in ’14.

According to the school’s presentation, Furness was one of the largest elementary schools in the U.S. in the fall of ’14. The institution served many purposes and saw many transitions; from elementary to middle to high school, to young and adult-oriented education, to wartime functions like bond-selling and machine work instruction. The first high school graduation, with students matriculating in grade nine and finishing at 12, took place in ’91.

Marvin Lenetsky, an alum who retired after a life of teaching within the building in 2006, was on hand to share advice with students. But he’s also one of the building’s biggest cheerleaders.

“Every transition that happened there was like a well-oiled educational machine,” the native of Fourth and Dickinson streets said. “There is a lot of trouble in the Philadelphia educational system, but this one’s a school that just keeps on going.”

He echoed Peou’s sentiments in his remarks to students, telling them that they would get out of their educational efforts what they put in.

“You got to learn to earn,” he instructed a room full of students of many ethnicities. “Embrace this school — because if you give it your all, they’ll give you their all.”

“Once you walk into Furness High School, you are a Furness student and [part of the] family,” Peou added following the assembly. “We try to run this school in a family environment.”

Tables lined the walls of the Furness gymnasium as world-flavored pop, hip-hop and dance music provided entertainment for the hungry students. The table of African-American-style foods included sweet potatoes, beans and fried and barbecue chicken. Indian, Chinese, Korean, Latin American, Pakistani and Nepalese selections added to the diverse setting.

But what seemed to be the liveliest living testament to a harmonious international air in the building was the vibrant break dance circle. Students of every creed pushed each other into the middle — black students snapped videos on smartphones, Hispanic friends laughed at each other’s jokes and Asian students popped and locked. Everyone was smiling.

Kathleen Thomas, a Spanish teacher, sees her school as living proof of racism’s dissipating power.

“Because kids today are living and working together and we all have the same desires and needs,” she said. “We’ll see in time racism just dwindle and dwindle.”

The school houses one of the city’s healthiest programs that help with English for Speakers of Other Languages.

Dr. Allan Wong, a parent to rising 11th-grader Chutong Tan and active member of the school’s advisory council, which includes faculty, staff and parents, had first-hand experience with schools that don’t encourage and support immigrant students.

“She came back from school after her first day and locked herself in her room and cried for an hour,” Wong said.

However, with the support she’s received at Furness, she’s grown in strides.

“The biggest problem with immigrant students is that they do not understand the contents of the exam because of their inadequate English proficiency, even if you explain it to them clearly,” he said, sitting at a cafeteria table.

Besides helping with the immigrant and refugee populations’ education, the ESOL program reinforces their budding identities.

“Having other students coming from the same country really gives them a sense of belonging,” Wong explained. “You don’t feel that you’re being isolated. I think psychologically that makes the students more comfortable in terms of finding themselves in a better position to learn.”

Stephen Tiang, a resident of the 500 block of Watkins Street and the Class of ’14’s valedictorian, certainly achieved great heights. The soon-to-be Villanova University student was born in Philadelphia but moved to Alabama and California before enrolling as a freshman at Furness.

“At first it was very nerve-wracking,” he admitted. “But after a while, I started to blend and adapt to the environment. The experience was nice with a lot of diverse groups.”

Juana Gil Mercado, a resident of the 1400 block of South 19th Street and of Dominican descent, is excited about attending Penn State University in the fall to pursue a pre-med degree. She participated in a summer math and science program there last year that involved research and working with college professors.

She’s bilingual and even worked in the main office as an intern for Valerie Nelsen, the school’s unflinching and all-knowing staff leader, translating for parents. Her own, perhaps, could have used her services when they first brought her and brother to America, but now she’s not even nervous to start at Penn State, thanks to her uncle and parents.

“At first my uncle came and he kind of told my dad ‘You can offer your children a better future in the U.S.,’” Mercado, 18, said. “And they brought us here to give us a better future.” 

Staff Writer Bill Chenevert at bchenevert@southphillyreview.com or ext. 117.