Opinion > Commentary

A school by any other name …


Seth Rosenblatt

Seth Rosenblatt

When I was a teenager growing up in New Jersey, we were so excited that a new indoor sports arena was being built at the Meadowlands, next to Giants Stadium. This arena would be the future home of the New Jersey Devils (hockey) and New Jersey Nets (basketball). It was opened as the Brendan Byrne Arena. Who was Brendan Byrne? He was actually the sitting governor of the state at the time! I was more than disillusioned in politics as we appeared to be witnessing the audacity of a governor who would name an arena after himself (no matter how instrumental he was in getting the project completed).

Over more than three decades, I haven’t shaken this befuddlement. Admittedly, this instance was probably one of the more egregious examples of “naming politics” at work – but this same issue has come up over and over again all over this country, for buildings, airports, parks, bridges, and even schools. I never really thought I would have the opportunity to do anything about it … until recently.

In our school district we are about to start building two new schools, and inevitably came up the subject of what to name the schools. After 30-plus years of scratching my head about this heretofore theoretical question, it was now our problem. Naming schools is a once-in-a-generation opportunity (if even that often), so how do we choose? Everyone involved in public schooling recognizes that it takes thousands and thousands of people to make a school district successful. Who among us would deserve such an honor to have his or her name permanently plastered on the front of the building? If we believe that it really takes a village, there isn’t anyone whose service can stand out over tens of thousands of others. Everyone’s name deserves to be on that door. So, the answer must be that no one’s name be there.

Then someone naturally suggested if you can’t pick someone from our community, why don’t we name a school after an historical figure? My wife even suggested that we pick Nelson Mandela. Although it’s hard not to be a huge Mandela fan, that pick – like that of any other historical figure – would border on the trite and meaningless. Should we pick Nelson Mandela because he just died? How about Martin Luther King? How about Gandhi? Washington? Jefferson? Lincoln? We could likely rationalize any such pick after the fact by choosing a set of attributes from the honored person and connecting those to the mission of the school, but does that have true meaning? At worst, it becomes just another political exercise which would create public tension over something that effectively has little meaning. I felt we should reserve community consternation for the real issues (of which there are many) rather than creating ones that aren’t necessary. It’s all downside with little upside.

After an initial discussion among our board members, we directed the superintendent to pull together an ad hoc committee of parents, faculty and others to discuss the issue. Interestingly, we had a fairly strong consensus among these committee members as well as school board members to have a policy prohibiting us from naming a school (or other significant school facilities) after people, living or dead. This perspective is consistent with the notion that naming a major facility (school or otherwise) after a person is actually an exercise in exclusion, not inclusion, and therefore not consistent with our values.

It seemed that most of our board members felt they could not in good conscience pick someone to honor above everyone else. Even if we tried, it would be an exercise in adults picking other favorite adults with our choices likely biased to coincident timing more than anything else. Do we pick the last school leader who retired, or passed away? Do we pick someone famous who came from our town? Inherently, there is no way one could meaningfully and objectively judge. Therefore, the process becomes inherently political and, even more importantly, none of this has to do with furthering the educational experience of our children. As I’ve written before, school boards more than any other political body have the freedom to not act as one would expect of politicians.

Notwithstanding our board’s consensus on this overall policy of prohibition around naming facilities after people, we did have an interesting discussion over the concept of “naming rights,” i.e. the idea that some wealthy benefactor could donate a significant amount of money and hope to have a name on a building. Although we largely agreed we wouldn’t want to “sell” the name of a school itself, we were split on the notion of allowing that for other facilities (e.g. gymnasiums, theaters, libraries, etc.). Personally, I felt that if a donation from a person or company were so significant as to create a facility or program that otherwise wouldn’t exist in that form while preserving equity across the district, then we will have served children by accepting such a donation. Of course, every community and school board will likely have different standards as to both what is “significant” as well as what maintains consistency with their values (e.g. it’s hard to imagine a school taking money from companies that sell tobacco or alcohol). We recognized that in our little town, this discussion was probably academic given the infinitesimal likelihood of being faced with such a dilemma.

I recognize that a policy against naming facilities after people would go against a very long tradition in government, but our own experience locally has allowed us to realize this is yet another opportunity for school boards to rise above the fray of politics and do something really meaningful. I don’t know what the right names for our new schools are, but I am looking forward to an inclusive process where we bring in students, staff, parents and other community members to brainstorm ones that are relevant for us.

•••

Seth Rosenblatt is a member of the Governing Board of the San Carlos School District. He also serves as the president of the San Mateo County School Boards Association and sits on the Executive Committee of the Joint Venture Silicon Valley Sustainable Schools Task Force. He has two children in San Carlos public schools. He writes frequently on issues in public education, including in both regional and national publications as well as on his own blog.

Filed under: Commentary, Parent Involvement, Policy & Finance

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4 Responses to “A school by any other name …”

  1. Paul said

    on January 13, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Seth, you are right on!

    The next step is to make sure that the names of the school board members, the superintendent, and the associate superintendents are omitted from the “under construction” sign and from the cornerstone or dedication plaque. Advertising leaders’ names makes it look as if the money came from those people, rather than from taxpayers. It also suggests that those people did something extraordinary to bring about the new school, when in fact they were merely doing the job that they were elected or paid to do.

    SamTrans, your local public transit agency, once had the nerve to post ads showing a bow wrapped around a new bus, as if the buses were a gift from the agency. In fact, 80% of the money for a new transit bus comes from the (unacknowledged, in this case) federal government. Similarly, school construction projects almost always involve state money.

    If anyone is memorialized at all, it should be the tradespeople who built the school. (I could accept the architect and the engineer, too, though today new school construction in California often involves standard, off-the-shelf designs that will receive quick architectural approval from the state.) There is a recent corporate headquarters building in Emeryville that incorporates signatures or names of tradespeople in a discrete but interesting way, such that each time you look closely at an exterior component of the building, you discover a new name.

    @Mike, the new school names in Alameda are ridiculous. They are just what we’d expect of a ‘community process’. There is no question that Ruby Bridges and Maya Lin are important figures, but if we were to set up a booth and ask passersby who these people are, 90% of adults would shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know.” Not a single child will have heard of either person through newspaper articles, popular children’s books, popular educational television programming, dinner table conversation with adults, etc., before being told. These names are not known widely enough. Each time someone passes by the new or the renamed school and says, “Huh?”, then the ‘community process’ has failed.

    Similarly, the default practice of naming schools after early American political figures produces a different kind of irrelevance. It may be heretical to say so, but George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and the other contenders for most popular school name are far removed from the day to day lives of adult Americans today. (At least it can be said that children will recognize these names.) Even more recent political figures like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King will, in a matter of decades, fade from immediate memory. This underscores the importance of not naming schools after people.

    • Paul replied

      on January 13, 2014 at 8:55 am

      Oops, I meant “discreet”, not “discrete”, in this case.

  2. navigio said

    on January 13, 2014 at 8:21 am

    if we’d hadnt so divorced the idea of a school from the community in which it exists, it might be natural to simply name schools based on where they are located.

  3. Mike McMahon said

    on January 13, 2014 at 7:43 am

    In Alameda we have been able to successfully engage the community in the naming of two new schools opened in the last ten years. A clearly defined process with criteria to determine how the name matches the community to be served helps. We ended up with two school being named after pioneers in their fields that matched the proposed culture of the school. Ruby Bridges and Maya Lin serve as a great role model for our students. http://www.mikemcmahon.info/newschoolnaming.htm

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