Schools skip controversy with feel-good names

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The nation’s school boards have virtually abandoned the practice of naming new schools after presidents, heroes and civic leaders in favor of inoffensive or trite references to nature and animals, according to a study released yesterday by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Facts say it all: Of 3,000 public schools in Florida, five are named for George Washington and 11 for manatees, 54 for palm trees, 91 for wooded areas and 155 for lakes.

“Everybody loves a manatee, so why not name a school after one? The sea cow has trumped the father of our country,” said lead author Jay P. Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a senior fellow at the research institute.

“It’s easier to choose a name that doesn’t offend anyone. What we name our schools reflects and shapes our values, however, and part of the civic mission of public education is to provide future citizens with models of civic behavior they can imitate and learn from,” Mr. Greene said.

Once upon a time, almost every town and city had its Thomas Jefferson High or Lincoln Elementary. Now schools are named as if they were suburban subdivisions or resorts with evocative monikers such as “Cactus Shadows” or “Whispering Winds,” Mr. Greene said.

The study, which tracked naming trends since 1947 in seven representative states — Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin — found that just 5 percent of schools referenced U.S. presidents. The “overwhelming majority of school districts” do not have a single school named for a president.

The study showcased the fate of Jefferson Elementary School in Fayetteville, Ark., which was renamed Owl Creek Elementary “after a small ditch with a trickle of water that runs by the school.”

The trend reflects “increased skepticism of inherited wisdom, revisionist history and the increased interest in the environment,” the study said.

With 199 public schools, Montgomery County presents a typical mix of monikers.

Two schools — John F. Kennedy High School and Herbert Hoover Middle School — were inspired by presidents. Other facilities are named for Mark Twain, Rachel Carson, Roberto Clemente, Thurgood Marshall, Sally Ride, Sargent Shriver, Francis Scott Key and others, along with an assortment named for generic-sounding spots: Strawberry Knoll, Harmony Hills, Georgian Forest and Wood Acres.

In March, the Montgomery County school board adopted school-naming procedures that “waive the process for community involvement” if the board is predisposed to a specific name, according to a March 13 memorandum, which notes that facilities should be named for “deceased, distinguished persons” and widely known geographical locations.

The nation’s school boards as a whole don’t have the stomach for public confrontation, Mr. Greene said. Administrators are hard-pressed to come up with names that carry no perceived political or ideological baggage, resorting to flora and fauna instead. For the past decade, New Orleans, for example, has forbidden any school district to name a school after anyone who ever owned slaves — thus barring George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

“Our reluctance to name schools after public figures means we fail to provide children with models of civic virtue,” Mr. Greene said. “But to provide this kind of instruction effectively, you have to take a stand. Some issues and some people are important, and that must be acknowledged.”

The neutralization of public school names is only part of the problem, the study noted, and “any effort to reinvigorate the civic mission of public schools will include broad cultural changes.”

The situation has taken on a piquant twist north of our border. To counter budget cuts, some cash-strapped school districts in Canada last month proposed selling naming rights of public schools to corporations. The notion has pitted school boards against public advocacy groups who fear a private brand name would impinge on the idea of public education.

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