Trouble Lurks Behind Task of Naming Schools

By Karen L. Abercrombie — January 14, 1998 7 min read
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In the face of community dissension over the name for a new high school, the Riverside, Calif., school board decided last week to go with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Whites opposed to the name said Dr. King was a great man, but one without a direct tie to Riverside.

Some white parents also feared that naming the school after the civil rights leader would hurt their children’s college prospects by leading admissions officers to assume the school was predominantly black. Its enrollment is projected to be almost two-thirds white.

Blacks, other minority residents, and a few whites argued strongly for honoring Dr. King.

The controversy in Riverside, which followed the New Orleans district’s widely criticized decision to remove George Washington’s name from an elementary school there, was a fresh reminder that the question of what name a school will carry can be a sensitive and politically tricky one.

Does the controversy over school names indicate that schools have become the forum for debating society’s larger political questions? Share your views in our on-line Town Meeting.

School boards wrestle with such issues as whether buildings should be named for living persons, historical figures, or simply the local neighborhood. Many districts have cast a wider net in recent years to ensure that minority and women role models are honored.

The National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va., provides sample policies for informational purposes but shies away from giving specific guidance to local boards.

“We try not to give advice because it is a local issue,” said Michael Wessely, the manager of the National Education Policy Network, an arm of the NSBA. “It’s tough to know what a community is thinking in California when we are in Virginia.” The NSBA receives fewer than a half-dozen requests a year for help on naming schools, he said.

Racial Sensitivity

The decisions in Riverside and New Orleans underscore the sensitive part race can play in picking a school’s name.

The board of the 36,000-student California district, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, formed a subcommittee last month to choose a name for the new high school, which is set to open in the fall of 1999. The panel asked for suggestions from the community, and on Dec. 15 settled on naming the school for Dr. King.

Initially, there was little resistance to the name, according to Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, a spokeswoman for the Riverside Unified School District.

“One parent called and said that King was not a hero and was an adulterer,” Ms. Valdez-Yeager said last week. “These types of comments are based on people’s fears; our board believes in the ideals of Dr. King.”

The opposition flared up shortly before the Jan. 5 board decision. Despite the last-minute flap, the unanimous vote by the school board at a crowded public meeting ensures that the civil rights leader’s name will grace the new 2,400-student high school.

In Louisiana, the Orleans Parish school board’s policy that schools not be named for slave owners went almost unnoticed outside the overwhelmingly black, 82,000-student district for five years.

Then in late October, the board voted to change the name of George Washington Elementary School to Dr. Charles Richard Drew Elementary School, honoring the black surgeon known for developing methods to preserve blood plasma.

Hitting a Nerve

The news landed on the front page of The New York Times and became grist for newspaper columnists and radio and television talk shows.

Critics of the decision said it was unfair to judge the nation’s first president by the standards of a later time, and pointed out that Washington was deeply troubled by the institution of slavery and provided for the emancipation of his slaves in his will.

“Seventeen seventy-six is different from 1997, but changing the name of a school named for George Washington hit a nerve,” Berrengher Brechtle, the president of the New Orleans board, said in a recent interview. “The majority of the people commenting about this particular change have been from outside of the district.”

The New Orleans board expressed its opposition to schools’ being named for slave owners in a 1992 preamble to its name-change policy. The decision to change a school’s name rests with the individual school, but the board makes the final choice.

The name change for Washington Elementary marked the 22nd time that the board had changed a name based on the policy.

Mr. Brechtle said he did not agree with the recent name change--which the board adopted unanimously--but does agree with the policy as a whole.

“The idea of kids going to a school named after a slave owner was demeaning,” he said. “We wanted the kids to identify with role models from their own heritage.”

Living Legends

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County district, it’s living politicians, not larger-than-life historical figures, who are at issue in naming buildings.

Last month, the Miami-Dade school board voted 8-1 to change its policy that had prohibited naming schools after people still in public office.

Before 1976, a Dade County school could not be named for someone who was still living. Then, in 1993, the board allowed schools to be named after former politicians, but only if they had been out of office for five years.

That policy was waived when three schools in the 347,000-student district were named after school board members while they were still on the board.

“Our attorneys have ruled that we [the board] can make exceptions to our policy,” said G. Holmes Braddock, a board member who has had a school named after himself. Mr. Braddock has served on the board for 35 years.

Unfair Advantage?

Betsy Kaplan, the lone school board member who opposed changing the policy in last month’s vote, believes it’s all right to name a school for a living person, as long as he or she is no longer in office.

“It gives the person who has the school named for them an unfair advantage when it comes to being elected,” she argued.

The Miami-Dade school board has found that renaming schools can be a difficult task as well.

The A.L. Lewis Elementary School, named for the deceased co-founder of the National Negro Business League, was renamed last month for Laura Saunders, the school’s former principal.

Local residents are fighting to change the name back. The push to have the school’s original name changed is said to have come from the school’s teachers.

Many residents said that they were not aware of the effort to change the name to honor Ms. Saunders until after the school board had voted.

Hispanic Hero

The increasing ethnic diversity of a district or school’s enrollment often provides the impetus for battles over school names.

For the past two years, Lydia Gonzalez, a government teacher at Woodbridge High School in the 50,300-student Prince William County, Va., district, says she has been trying to make “the powers that be” realize that Hispanic students need schools named after their heroes.

After being defeated in a similar attempt two years ago, Ms. Gonzalez is trying to get one of the two new schools that will be ready next fall named for baseball legend Roberto Clemente.

Mr. Clemente, who was killed in a 1972 plane crash while on an earthquake-relief mission to Nicaragua, worked with children during his off-season, Ms. Gonzalez said.

“If you have a student population that is diverse, they need role models that cut across gender, class, and race,” she said. “There are no schools named for Hispanics in the county.”

The county’s Hispanic population has been increasing in recent years, and Hispanics now make up nearly 7 percent of the district’s enrollment.

Ms. Gonzalez said she rejects arguments that Mr. Clemente, who was born in Puerto Rico and spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, would be an unfamiliar figure to children in the suburban Washington district.

She noted that the district has schools named for Dr. King and for teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe.

And county educators could teach their students about the Hall of Fame right fielder, she added.

The new schools are scheduled to open next fall, and the Prince William school board plans to vote on the names this spring.

By the Numbers

In the 1,500-student Lindenwold, N.J., district, three of the schools are known only as School Number 1, School Number 4, and School Number 5. School Number 2 is now used as the district’s administrative offices, and School Number 3 has been sold.

During a school board meeting last summer, board members tried to come up with a naming strategy to give those schools an identity. But the idea was soon tabled.

“We decided not to make any changes because there were too many differences of opinion on the names,” Betsy Arsenault, the superintendent’s secretary, said recently.

In Arizona’s Gilbert Unified School District, where enrollment has mushroomed from 2,000 to 22,000 students in 20 years, building and naming schools have become routine.

Walter DeLucky, the superintendent there, offers this advice on names: Just sidestep controversy altogether. A majority of his district’s schools are named after subdivisions.

“We don’t name schools after people because it creates hard feelings,” he said.


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