As the presidency of Barack Obama comes to a close, the schools across the country named to honor him and first lady Michelle Obama paint a panorama of a divided nation, one separated by race, class, and place.
Many are located in places like Normandy, a struggling St. Louis-area enclave where unemployment rates are high and high school graduation rates are low.
The schools here are among the poorest and most segregated in Missouri. All but a handful of the 400 students at Normandy’s Barack Obama Elementary are black; almost all of them qualify for free or low-cost meals.
The racial and economic segregation that persists here can be found in Obama-named schools across the nation, from Los Angeles to Long Island.
More than 90 percent of students who attend the namesake schools are black and Latino. Fewer than 4 percent are white.
Students at the Obama schools are nearly 60 percent more likely to qualify for free or low-cost meals than their peers nationwide, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data.
A rural-urban divide also stratifies the schools: scattered throughout 11 states, the Obama schools are almost exclusively found in urban and suburban areas with 250,000 or more residents. They are concentrated on the East and West coasts and in metropolitan areas in the country’s mid-section, including three in the suburbs of President Obama’s adopted hometown of Chicago. None have cropped up in the small towns and sparsely populated areas that cover wide swaths of the country.
“When you look at the larger geography of naming schools, we do see a reaffirmation or reinforcement of segregated boundaries,” said Derek Alderman, a geographer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “School names matter. It’s part of our larger way that we imagine ourselves and project our identities onto places and onto people.”
‘What We Could Be’
Naming schools for presidents has been Normandy’s tradition. The district’s two other elementary schools honor Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The names of James Garfield and William Henry Harrison graced buildings in the past. When those schools were named, Normandy was a mostly white, middle-class bedroom community. Now more than 95 percent of the students in the district are black.
The idea to name the district’s brand-new elementary school for the country’s first black president came from those students.
Choosing Obama’s name felt different, more meaningful, students and staff say. Not only because he’s black, but because his legacy is of the moment, not confined to a grainy black-and-white video or history book.
“Not only is this person a president, but this person looks like us. It represented what we could be or what the kids could grow up and do,” said Jacquette Boykin, a 6th grade English/language arts teacher at the school. “They can’t put their eyes on Kennedy or Washington. They’re pictures in a book. But they can see Barack Obama.”
And what the students see matters, said Cozy Marks III, who was the president of Normandy’s school board when the district chose the Obama name.
“It’s not just the name change. It’s where it was, it’s how it looks,” Marks said. “We didn’t build it in the middle of the best neighborhood, we built it where there were derelict houses, where the need is greatest.”
Boykin still remembers the excitement surrounding the school’s opening in 2011. Local politicians lined up to christen the new, $11 million building, a beacon of hope in a blighted neighborhood. Desperate to enroll their children in the school, some parents tried using fake addresses.
“The kids’ demeanor was different, the parents’ demeanor was different,” said Boykin, who has worked in the district for 16 years.
In the five years since, Boykin has witnessed some of that early enthusiasm fade.
“Yeah, but our school is very transient,” she said. “You still feel proud saying ‘I work at Barack Obama Elementary.’ ”
The sense of hope and optimism that the new school and its aspirational name brought to the Normandy community remains. But the harsh realities that are present in so many high-poverty, segregated schools endure.
Teachers and staff members have shuttled in and out. The school has already had two principals. Students come to school consistently, but their performance on tests hasn’t changed much.
Not all schools bearing the Obama name are struggling under the strains of poverty and segregation.
At the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas, high expectations have sparked high achievement. Two graduating classes in, alumni at the all-boys magnet in the Oak Cliff neighborhood have collectively earned millions of dollars in college scholarships.
Pittsburgh’s Barack Obama Academy of International Studies is a high-poverty school that offers International Baccalaureate courses to students. A new technology-themed magnet elementary school—named Barack H. Obama Elementary Magnet School of Technology—opened just this month in Dekalb County, Ga., a district in suburban Atlanta.
Still, other schools named for Obama have struggled with high suspension rates, chronic absenteeism, and access to high-quality courses.
“Changing names can be important symbolic moves, but they don’t do anything to change the structural inequalities and racial inequalities facing schools and school systems around the country,” said Janelle Scott, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Avoiding Political Names
More schools have already been named for Obama than any president since Ronald Reagan.
But a majority of districts nationwide do not have a single school named after a commander-in-chief, a Manhattan Institute for Policy Research study found in 2007. Instead, school-naming committees have embraced names unburdened by politics—some of the more popular monikers are inspired by nature or geography.
Naming schools for public figures is one way to ensure public spaces reflect the nation’s diversity. When the name of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or labor organizer Cesar Chavez is attached to a school or street, the push often comes from the black or Hispanic community. A different demographic—often white Southerners—makes its voice heard when communities fight back against efforts to rename schools that honor Confederate generals or slave owners, said Alderman, of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Alderman has studied schools named for King. Like the Obama schools, they are mostly in central cities, serving primarily low-income black and Hispanic students. His research into the King-named schools delved into a late 1990s debate in the district in Riverside, Calif., where parents protested the school board’s decision to name a new high school for the slain civil rights leader. The parents, Alderman said, feared that the school, where two-thirds of the students were white, would be perceived as a “black” school, harming their children’s chances of getting into top colleges.
“A lot of people in the 1990s used the term ‘cultural wars’ to typify this struggle to claim American identity, the American past, and assert one’s vision of what we should be remembering about America,” Alderman said. “Maybe the term is no longer fashionable, but the struggle itself has not gone away.”
For Scott, the University of California, Berkeley professor, debates over school names are a realistic portrayal of the struggles over race and education—ones that will continue long after Obama leaves office.
“For far too many years, children went to school and continue to go to schools named after figures who would’ve been hostile to them,” she said. “We’re at a very interesting historical moment where people are attempting to face history.”
Metropolitan St. Louis has been at the epicenter of many of these conversations. A white police officer shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014, eight days after his graduation from Normandy High School. His death ignited weeks of protests in neighboring Ferguson.
Thousands of students in Normandy and similar districts around St. Louis are in the middle of a tug-of-war between state leaders and courts over a law that allows families to transfer out of failing schools.
“When you come into St. Louis, you see the disparities, the stark disparities around housing and income and education,” said Jerome Morris, a professor of urban education at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.
In his farewell address to the nation last week, Obama said that hopes that his presidency would usher in a post-racial America were “never realistic.” That is certainly evident in America’s public schools.
More than 60 years after the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, the nation’s public schools are re-segregating at a rapid pace. A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in May found that the percentage of public schools in high-poverty and the percentage comprised of mostly black or Hispanic students have more than doubled since 2000. The percentage of all schools in which 75 percent or more of students are of the same racial or socio-economic class grew from 9 percent to 16 percent, roughly one in every six schools.
Nearly all the Obama schools fall into that category.
In a May 2014 commencement speech in Topeka, Kan., the birthplace of Brown, Michelle Obama said segregation is exacerbated by the fact that many schools serving mostly black and Hispanic communities don’t have equal resources.
Those are the places that Marks, the former Normandy school board president, expects to see more schools embracing the Obama name.
“In any place you need hope, where everything is not going in the direction you want it to go,” he said, “I would expect to see that name.”
Library Intern Teresa Lewandowski contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as Schools Named for the Obamas Mirror Race, Class Divides