On July 1, 2021, two schools in Virginia’s Alexandria City Public Schools will have new names. The suburban district of 16,000 students is among a growing number receiving petitions and resolutions calling for the renaming of buildings named for Confederate leaders or otherwise controversial figures.
Since 2014, the names of more than 30 schools have undergone name changes across the United States. The Equal Justice Initiative has identified 240 schools in 17 states named for Confederate leaders. The San Francisco Unified School District is one of the most recent to take similar action, with its board voting in January to rename 44 schools.
Alexandria and San Francisco had widespread community support but not all proposals are readily embraced. The Houston Independent School District received backlash after deciding to rename seven schools — four high schools and three middle schools. In Palo Alto, Texas it took 17 months of intense public debate before the school board approved renaming two schools.
To get a better sense of what other districts should take into consideration when weighing these decisions, we asked school leaders involved in renaming efforts to share their insights into best practices and lessons learned.
Establish a process
Natasha Beery, director of the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program and community relations at Berkeley Unified School District in California, has been involved in two renaming efforts. The first was in 2018, when the former LeConte Elementary School — named for Joseph LeConte, a renowned conservationist who helped found the Sierra Club but also owned slaves and promoted White supremacist ideas — was renamed for desegregationist Sylvia Mendez.
“It’s important to be clear on agreeing to rename a school,” she said. “There was an effort about 10 years earlier, and the board vote was split. It was devastating and hard on the community as a whole when it ended in a failed attempt.”
The second renaming came forward as a board resolution presented last year amid the pandemic. The successful proposal to change the name of Jefferson Elementary School in honor of Ruth Acty, the first Black teacher employed by the district, followed a detailed board policy and procedure.
ACPS Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. agrees being methodical creates more opportunities to create a positive community response.
“The process takes you out of all the distractions,” he said. “Having that gave us a roadmap to the finish line, because we always referenced the process when the board talked about it, when there was a public comment and the board had to make decisions.”
Allow students to lead
In Alexandria, Virginia, a community petition prompted name changes. However, once the request was received, Hutchings turned to the students.
“Sometimes we have to step aside and allow our young people to lead. Our students are the ones experiencing the negative feelings based on those names, and we wanted to hear from them,” he said. “We even had students of color tell us about how they weren’t treated the same in AP classes and didn’t feel welcome in schools with certain names.”
Students were the first to suggest new names. A poster essay contest allowed them to present a name and the reasons for choosing it. The district received 119 submissions, and the community then had an opportunity to offer suggestions. Recommendations ranged from the City of Alexandria School and Titans Community High School to renaming in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the Supreme Court justice who died last year.
A public hearing on name change recommendations is set for March 18, with a final board vote scheduled for April 8.
“It was really exciting to see why people thought a name was of interest,” Hutchings said. “From this whole process I got to know some new people and others I didn’t know about. That includes learning about a former employee of the school who was nominated because of their contributions.”
Seek community input — again and again
Community members often have an emotional investment in schools and develop an identity around them. Even when you think you’ve asked for input, Kenny Rodrequez, superintendent of Missouri’s Grandview C-4 School District, said it’s important to ask again.
During his time as an administrator in a previous position in Oklahoma’s Tulsa Public Schools, leaders in the district decided middle school names would change to match corresponding high schools as part of a school closure/consolidation plan. For example, Nimitz Middle School became Memorial Junior High School to match Memorial High School.
“None of the changes were immediately accepted. To certain members of the community, none of them were considered small,” Rodrequez said. “We underestimate at times the power and connection community members have to their community schools.”
The renaming was a significant undertaking that included three committees made up of multiple stakeholders from all across the city. Each committee received guidelines and information for their individual proposals. Then, a group worked through the proposals to determine the best scenario.
The public was allowed to provide input on each draft; at least four were created before the final plan was approved.
“It is not possible to get too much input from the community,” Rodrequez said. “Even when you think you have communicated your plans enough, ask for more input.”
Seize the opportunity to educate
The renaming process is also an opportunity for schools to do what they do best — educate. In Berkeley, the process involved understanding what is in a name.
“We talked about how to come to an agreement on what made a good name and why there is a reason to name a school instead of something like PS 114 like in New York City,” Beery said. “At the first committee meeting, each person had to introduce themselves, where their name came from, and what it means to them. Some said they were named after a grandparent, a famous figure or that their family’s name was changed at Ellis Island. Thinking about the characteristic of a name is a great way to start.”
When the list of potential names was narrowed to nine, educational materials were created and distributed via curriculum and communication to the community.
For example, one suggestion was Ohlone tribe in recognition of the local Native American tribe. Another was an influential Chinese-American family. The committee created age-appropriate materials when needed and used existing books like those about Sylvia Mendez. It took three weeks to share information about each of the top names.
Hutchings, too, viewed the renaming as an opportunity to teach. Students, staff and community members in Alexandria attended information sessions explaining who T.C. Williams and Matthew Maury were, and why replacing their names was needed. By the time the school board voted to change the name, there was no resistance. People understood the need to change the names and the impact on students.
“I’m glad we slowed things down a bit and didn’t react so quickly,” Hutchings said. “When we sent a survey around, 75% of the community felt they were better educated and had a better understanding of two people to support the name change. That helped us get the results, too.”