Flags from countries across the globe hang around the balcony of Horace Howard Furness High School’s auditorium.
But, looking closely beyond the cultural displays, the century-old walls are crumbling.
“When you look at the beautiful culture in this building, the beautiful children, the staff – what does that make us?” asked principal Daniel Peou. “Does it make us less of students educated than other people based on the building that we are in?”
These questions steered a nearly two-hour-long discussion last Wednesday at Furness as state Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler led a House Democratic Policy Committee public hearing on school building toxic conditions and emergency funding.
The combined building tour and hearing, which was attended by elected officials from across Philadelphia and neighboring counties, marked the launch of a series of similar events hosted by the Fund Our Facilities Coalition.
“It is warm, and this is the reality that you all live with on a daily basis,” Fiedler said. “So, I think this is a perfect location for us to talk about equality and inequality and about the way that our schools are funded, in particular, to really focus on schools buildings – the places where you all spend your days and where your teachers and staff do as well.”
Established earlier this year, the coalition, comprised of local officials and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, plans to cultivate an immediate $170 million investment from local, state and federal government toward the repairs of nearly 200 aging Philadelphia public schools containing a scope of environmental and health hazards.
However, based on a facility analysis from a few years ago, it would cost the district nearly $4.5 billion just to restore all of the district’s buildings to code, according to Superintendent Dr. William Hite.
Gov. Tom Wolf announced in mid-July that he was providing $4.3 million in state funding for lead paint stabilization at Philadelphia public school buildings, which will help benefit the coalition’s goal. Also supporting the coalition, state Sen. Vincent Hughes announced in May that he was sponsoring legislation that would provide $85 million to “make critical repairs” to Philadelphia’s school buildings. In July, Fiedler introduced the bill’s companion legislation in the House.
“We need the additional funds in order to really provide them the kind of support and a high-quality education that all children deserve,” Jordan said.
During Wednesday’s event, politicians from across Southeast Pennsylvania listened to testimony from a panel of individuals with close ties to the crisis, including Jordan; Peou; Jerry Roseman, environmental science director, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and environmental science adviser to Philly Healthy Schools Initiative; Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO; and Stephen Rodriguez, superintendent of the Pottstown School District.
The group discussed the proven presence and dangers of elements like lead and asbestos in Philadelphia public schools and, chiefly, how to fund infrastructure remediation.
“I know what the scale and the scope of the problems across the district is – and I know that we need to do better at fixing these things,” Roseman said. “I know that the problems that we’re seeing at Furness we’re seeing throughout the district in schools old and new and in every part of the city…The inspections and the discussions and reports from people in the buildings and the measurements that we do – they tell a story. And the story they tell is something that I think is important for us to hear and understand.”
Roseman says that just in 2019, he witnessed mold issues in at least three dozen schools as well as about 40 buildings where asbestos removal was happening.
Furness, which Peou says is home to more than 700 students from more than 30 countries speaking more than 20 languages, has experienced its own share of hazardous conditions.
According to the 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer investigation “Toxic City: Sick Schools,” the Pennsport high school had 49 reports of lead paint residue and five reports of lead in drinking water. These figures were both considered above average for rates of reports per 100 students, according to the Inquirer investigation.
Last year, students harvesting a community garden in the Furness schoolyard tested lead levels in the paint of a staircase that overlooked the planting beds. To their surprise, they discovered dangerous amounts of the element.
“How do the adults expect us to learn and stay in school under these oppressive conditions? Schools are supposed to be safe and healthy environments for students to grow,” said Furness senior Kane Estata. “But instead, Philly schools are sometimes even more dangerous than outside on the streets.”
Estata and another student says the building’s extreme temperature conditions, whether freezing cold in the winter or sweltering hot in the early fall and late summer, make learning unbearable. Aside from dilapidated bathroom conditions and falling paint in the hallways, students say they often feel ill when classroom temperatures are too extreme.
With years of experience in the asbestos industry, Eiding stressed the severity of the element on health, particularly how symptoms of long-term exposure typically don’t show up until more than a decade after initial exposure.
“For 20 some years, I represented insulators and asbestos workers,” Eiding said. “And I will tell you for most of that time, I buried more of my members and the fellas I worked with from mesothelioma than I’d ever want to count. Asbestos is a disease. It kills people. And, I don’t want to scare the people in this hall, but we should not have our teachers and kids exposed to those elements – whether it’d be lead or asbestos.”
The panel also discussed the disproportionate distribution of commonwealth educational spending, stressing the need to find new formulas that will increase funding to urban districts, particularly those home to immigrants, impoverished and special education students – much like Furness.
After the discussion, the group went on a tour throughout the school to observe some disintegrating conditions, including a special education classroom with a water-damaged wall, which Peou says, despite being repaired, continues to be destroyed from a leaking source.
Students, staff and parents are encouraged to capture conditions like these on the new PFT mobile app. The photos will be sent to the district’s facilities department to be considered for repair.
“We now have the evidence as opposed to a telephone conversation and someone sharing with us what they saw but the location and the school is identified,” Jordan said. “There’s a picture of what it is that you’re talking about, so we get a lot of information quickly and that information is shared with the district…We want to be able to identify the problem and correct the problem before someone becomes ill – students or staff.”