In 1981, a young Daniel Peou arrived in Philadelphia from Cambodia and didn’t speak a word of English. He enrolled at Horace Furness School, then a middle school, where he began language lessons.
Now, he walks the halls of Furness alongside his students every morning as the principal, building a school community that’s like a second family.
“I’ve always been part of the Furness community, since I came to America,” Peou told Billy Penn.
A neighborhood school at 3rd and Mifflin in Pennsport, Furness was once thought of as a place kids ended up by default, according to several past and current students and teachers. Under Peou’s leadership over the past decade, however, it’s become a point of pride for everyone involved.
He and his staff purposely cultivate a family-like environment, Peou said, through things like their open-door policy for students who need support, working through problems and conflicts together, and hosting events and community partnerships.
Along with assistant principal Sharon Burke and other administrators, he makes an effort to greet students in the morning, check on them during the day, and walk them outside during dismissal.
“We are seen by our kids — in the hallway, in their classroom, in the cafeteria, in the schoolyard,” Peou said.
This story is part of a project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting examining educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.
When he returned as an administrator, it was like coming home, Peou said. He didn’t speak English when he arrived, but Furness had an ESL program. (It still does; fully half of the school’s 750 or so students are considered English learners, according to district data, with no fewer than 18 different languages spoken at their homes.)
When he was understood by his teachers, it made his new home a lot less scary and confusing. It was also a change from Cambodia, where death threats were common, he said.
The Khmer Rouge, an extremist communist group that overthrew the Cambodian government and ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, saw educated people as a threat. People considered “intellectual” or receiving education were often killed.
“There was no language skill yet,” Peou said of his early days at Furness, “[and] limited understanding of this culture — but it was different, it was a lot safer.”
Beyond the classroom and into community, because ‘they trust us’
Peou attended college at Eastern University in Delaware County, and earned a degree in business management.
He originally had no intention of becoming an educator, but through volunteer work as a classroom assistant for the School District of Philadelphia, he discovered he loved working with children. Though he and his wife were expecting a baby, he decided to return to grad school and get an education degree.
It was worth the effort despite the challenges because it’s his passion, Peou said. “The fact that my wife was very understanding and very supportive made that a whole lot easier,” he added.
After obtaining the master’s in education from Cheyney University, Peou worked as a bilingual counseling assistant, was a teacher at Eliza Kirkbride Elementary School, and became a climate manager at John Taggart Elementary School. He returned to Furness as an assistant principal in 2008, and became the principal in 2012.
At Furness, he hit his stride. Peou is a good leader because he puts students first and is willing to work with anyone as long as it’s for the benefit of the students, assistant principal Burke told Billy Penn.
She cited his many partnerships with different organizations, like the one with the University of Pennsylvania’s library to raise money to purchase new books for the Furness library, which hasn’t been operational for about 30 years.
Sometimes teachers disagree publicly during school board meetings, Burke noted, which can make things awkward. But at the end of the day, everyone still has each other’s back and works together.
“As long as we’re speaking the truth and working towards a better environment for students then he supports that, which then allows us as assistants to support it and other staff as you go down the line,” Burke said.
Peou also credited his dry sense of humor, which he uses to break the ice and connect with new students who are being aloof and aren’t yet ready to trust him.
“I use that sense of humor to get them to take off the wall, the barrier, and start having a conversation,” Peou said.
Furness’s sense of community doesn’t start and stop when the bell rings. The Philadelphia Police Department used to distribute gift baskets every Thanksgiving, but the neighborhood wasn’t receptive, Peou said. So he had the school take over the distribution, to greater success during the pandemic.
“I said, ‘Just bring it to Furness. I’ll take care of it.’ Because they know us, they trust us,” Peou explained.
This type of support continued throughout the pandemic, with Peou and teachers also dropping materials and food off at students’ homes if they needed it.
“The students and staff buy into the idea of ‘We are one family unit’. We are here to support. [It] does not matter what language or what culture or where you came from,” Peou said. “Once you come to Furness, you are family.”