Homeless High

On the Furr campus, kids are getting the chances they need.

But it was not a lasting solution. The friend was a senior and, like almost all of the students at Furr, did not live in the immediate neighborhood. He didn't have transportation, and so Victor began missing a lot of classes.

Victor bounced around, finally moving in with another friend, but this was another senior without transportation, and the same pattern occurred. It wasn't until this year, when film teacher Assol Kavtorina saw Victor crying in the hallway and invited him to live with her family, that he's had a secure home and makes it to school regularly.

"I was always moving houses; getting to school was my biggest issue. That's why I had to take a lot of classes this year; I missed a lot of days the year before. I had the grades; I didn't get the credits," Victor says.

Dr. Bertie Simmons, Furr principal, prides herself on knowing all her students, like junior Brandon Edge.
Margaret Downing
Dr. Bertie Simmons, Furr principal, prides herself on knowing all her students, like junior Brandon Edge.

Kavtorina, who studied at the Moscow Film School and has taught at Furr the last two years, doesn't understand all the media fuss about taking in Victor to live with her family.

"I knew he's a normal, decent person. He wasn't a complete stranger, because I used to teach him. It's really not a big deal. In Russian villages, a stranger could knock on your door and you open the door and let the stranger in," she says.

Right after she made Victor the offer, she called her husband to tell him who'd be coming home.

"Really, for us it was not a big deal. I just put him in the guest bedroom. And an extra bowl of soup for dinner won't ruin anyone's budget."

"On the first day I was here, one gang member threw another one through a plate-glass window," Simmons recalls. It was the year 2000, five years after she'd retired in 1995, and the district wanted her to sort out the troubled Furr. "I walked out there; I was 65 years old. And I said, 'I must be a lunatic to be here,' because I knew nothing about gangs."

"Two weeks later, the thrower was killed in a Pleasantville drive-by shooting," Simmons says. "It was a retaliation."

The district asked Simmons three times to go to Furr before she accepted. In 1999, she'd lost a granddaughter in a skiing accident; the teen had been a sophomore at Bellaire High School and she'd always wanted "to make the world a better place for all people." Simmons decided she'd go to Furr and try to make the kind of difference her granddaughter talked about.

The first thing Simmons says she did was unload a number of teachers. "I had to get rid of a lot of teachers because I wanted us to be sure that all of us believed that our kids could succeed and would succeed if we support them and give them the instruction and the emotional support they needed."

But there continued to be problems, in large part caused by the number of gang members on the Furr campus. "We went into uniforms because we have 15 identified gangs on the campus," she says.

Things got worse before they got better. In 2003, Simmons stepped out of her car to find a riot going on among her then-1,400-member student body.

"Our assistant principals were going to send 42 kids to CEP. And I said, 'No, we're not going to do that anymore. I'm going to break that rule.' And I called the kids in to talk to them, and I'm going to see what I could do to change this. I was told by the district, 'Don't ever meet with gang members.'"

She asked them what it would take to bring peace to this school. The answer came out of left field.

"They did not believe that 9/11 had happened. This was in August of '03. They thought everybody was trying to fool them because they think they're poor and don't know better," Simmons says. They told her the only thing that could change their minds would be if the school could take them to Ground Zero.

Simmons struck a deal. A contract was signed that said if the campus was peaceful, there would be a trip the following June. And despite the central office's misgivings, it all worked out. Some important people heard about the effort, donations finally materialized, and Simmons and 32 gang members (ten chickened out) who'd never been on a plane before flew to New York City on Continental. They even took in a showing of 42nd Street on Broadway.

Nineteen-year-old Laura Rae first heard about Reach when she came to campus to enroll her 15-year-old brother at Furr. She found Furr by researching the Texas Education Agency Web site and decided it would be a safer place than North Forest.

She'd been all set to return to North Forest herself, but when she learned Reach had flexible hours and would help her recover her credits faster, she switched. She would have graduated last October, but was told if she took a year of a foreign language — she chose French — she could get a higher-level, recommended diploma. She graduated in December, but walked the stage this weekend.

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