What’s In A Name?

February 01, 1998 5 min read

When Riverside, California, school board members moved in December to name a new high school after the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., they thought it a simple way to honor the slain civil rights leader. But by the time of their final vote last month, their choice was under fire.

Objections trickled in at first, starting with a phone call from a man saying that King was an adulterer, not a hero. Then, as the board’s final vote neared, some critics argued that while King was a great man, he had no ties to the Riverside community. Finally, white parents feared that the King name would hurt their children’s college prospects: Admissions officials, they said, might mistakenly assume that the school, which is slated to be two-thirds white, was predominantly black.

In the end, the board dismissed such concerns and voted unanimously last month to put King’s name on the new, 2,400-student school. Still, the flap is one of several in recent months that highlights the thorny issues that can tangle the seemingly simple process of naming a school. In places such as Riverside, race has played a pivotal role in the debate, with controversy often following a district’s decision to ignore traditional names and honor minority and women role models. But districts have also tussled over the question of whether a politician’s name should grace a building’s facade. Others have dodged the issue altogether, choosing to name schools after neighborhoods or even numbers.

The National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Virginia, provides sample policies to local boards for informational purposes but shies away from giving specific guidance. “We try not to give advice because it is a local issue,” says Michael Wessely, 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 says.

The controversy in Riverside was preceded by one in New Orleans that grabbed national headlines. In late October, the Orleans Parish school board voted unanimously 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. The decision was in accordance with the district’s policy that schools not be named for slave owners—a five-year-old policy that had gone almost unnoticed outside the overwhelmingly black, 82,000-student district, despite 21 previous name changes.

But news that the father of the country was not considered worthy of recognition on a school building made 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 Washington by the standards of a later time and pointed out that the nation’s first president was deeply troubled by the institution of slavery and provided for the emancipation of his slaves in his will.

“Changing the name of a school named for George Washington hit a nerve,” admits Berrengher Brechtle, president of the New Orleans board. Still, he says, “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.

Brechtle says he did not want to lift Washington’s name from the school but agreed to it because he backs the policy as a whole. “The idea of kids going to a school named after a slave owner was demeaning,” he says. “We wanted the kids to identify with role models from their own heritage.”

Lydia Gonzalez, a government teacher at Woodbridge High School in Prince William County, Virginia, has been saying much the same thing for the past two years. She is trying to convince school officials that Hispanic students need schools named after their heroes. The county’s Hispanic population has jumped in recent years, and Hispanics now make up nearly 7 percent of the district’s 50,300 students.

Although the district rejected a similar proposal two years ago, Gonzalez is trying to get the school board to name one of two new schools for baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Clemente, who was killed in a 1972 plane crash while on an earthquake-relief mission to Nicaragua, worked with children during his off-season, Gonzalez says. “If you have a student population that is diverse, they need role models that cut across gender, class, and race,” she explains. “There are no schools named for Hispanics in the county.”

Gonzalez rejects arguments that children in Prince William County, a Washington, D.C., suburb, would not know Clemente, who was born in Puerto Rico and spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. She notes that the district has schools named for King and teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe. County educators could easily teach their students about the Hall of Fame right fielder, she adds.

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County district, meanwhile, it’s living politicians, not larger-than-life historical figures, who are at issue in naming buildings. The Miami-Dade school board voted 8-1 in December to drop its prohibition against naming schools after public officials. Since 1993, the board had allowed schools to be named after former politicians who had been out of office for five years but had banned naming schools after current elected officials. Even before that ban was dropped, waivers had been granted in order to name three schools in the 347,000-student district after school board members still in office. “Our attorneys have ruled that we [the board] can make exceptions to our policy,” says G. Holmes Braddock, a 35-year veteran board member who has had a school named for him.

Betsy Kaplan was the lone school board member to oppose dropping the ban, arguing that naming schools after elected officials inserts schools into politics. “It gives the person who has the school named for them an unfair advantage when it comes to being elected,” she says.

Naturally, some districts have decided naming schools after people—dead or alive—is too contentious. In the 1,500-student Lindenwold, New Jersey, district, schools have no names and are known only by a number. Last summer, school board members tried to come up with a naming strategy to give those schools an identity, but the idea was soon tabled because of the many differences of opinion.

In Arizona’s Gilbert Unified School District, naming schools has become almost routine as the district has built new buildings to accommodate an enrollment that has mushroomed from 2,000 to 22,000 students in 20 years. Superintendent Walter DeLucky 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 says.

—Karen Abercrombie