N.Va. School Names Pass Up Celebrity, Controversy

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Washington area suburbs of Virginia, befitting a state that supplied four of the first five U.S. presidents, has public high schools named after all of them, plus a nice sprinkling of famous Virginia generals.

Washington-Lee High School is in Arlington County. Jefferson, Madison, Lee, Marshall and J.E.B. Stuart high schools are in Fairfax County. Fredericksburg's only high school is named after James Monroe, and Prince William County has Stonewall Jackson High.

But over the past decade, even though 12 Northern Virginia high schools have opened to handle one of the fastest-growing populations in the country, not one of them has been named after a person, much less a president or a general. Instead, the various school-naming committees have embraced scenic, geographic or patriotic titles: Battlefield, Colonial Forge, Dominion, Forest Park, Heritage, Mountain View, Riverbend, South County, Stone Bridge, Westfield and two schools named Freedom.

Part of the problem, according to a recent study and some Northern Virginia school officials, is that presidents, particularly the more recent ones, and other well-known people tend to be controversial, whereas few Americans have bad things to say about rivers, lakes, forests or freedom.

Maryland is still naming high schools after people, but it appears to be out of sync with Virginia and much of the rest of the country. According to a new Manhattan Institute for Policy Research study, impersonal school-naming practices are a national trend. Three researchers found that 45 percent of public schools built in New Jersey before 1948 were named after people, compared with 27 percent of schools built after 1988. Similar patterns were found in Minnesota, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio and Wisconsin.

"Of almost 3,000 public schools in Florida," researchers Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Jonathan Butcher said, "five honor George Washington, compared to 11 named after manatees. . . . In the last two decades, a public school built in Arizona was almost fifty times more likely to be named after such things as a mesa or a cactus than after a president."

"Today, a majority of all public school districts nationwide do not have a single school named after a president," the researchers said in their report released this week, "What's in a Name? The Decline in the Civic Mission of School Names."

A citizen committee in Prince William considered naming the district's eighth high school after former U.S. first lady Barbara Bush, the late Virginia governor Mills E. Godwin or the late Potomac News weekly columnist Norman H. Tennant but settled instead on Forest Park High School. Listed as reasons for that choice on the committee's discussion summary sheet were: "Next to the park. Not offending anyone. Not controversial."

The reluctance to attach people's names to high schools does not appear to be as strong for middle schools or elementary schools, which usually draw from a smaller population base. Alexandria's newest elementary school, Samuel W. Tucker, is named after a well-known civil rights lawyer who organized one of the first sit-in protests, in 1939. Stafford County has several new elementary schools named after people and one middle school, Dixon-Smith, named after former longtime principal Donald Dixon and former longtime principal and county board member Lyle Ray Smith.

The District has opened no high school recently, although it did reopen McKinley Tech, first named in 1902 when presidential names were still popular.

Maryland appears to be bucking the national trend, even with high schools. Prince George's County has named its two newest high schools, Charles H. Flowers and Dr. Henry A. Wise Jr., after community activists who were Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American combat pilots.

Patricia O'Neill, a member of the Montgomery County school board, said she enjoyed seeing two local figures, former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver and civil rights activist Roscoe Nix, attend ceremonies putting their names on new elementary schools. "I think it sets a tone for students," she said.

The authors of the Manhattan Institute report agree. "School names can shape values by providing educators with a teaching opportunity," they wrote. "Teachers at Lincoln Elementary, for example, can reference the school name to spark discussions of the evils of slavery and the benefits of preserving our union."

Loudoun County, with four new high schools following the no-people trend, named John W. Tolbert Jr. Elementary School after the first African American member of the Leesburg Town Council and Frances Hazel Reid Elementary School after a longtime reporter for the Loudoun Times-Mirror.

Joe Carlin, a Loudoun businessman, said he would have preferred to name a new elementary school after its geographic area to make it easier to find, but the committee he served on had no trouble agreeing to name the school Steuart W. Weller, after a community leader who died recently.

Carlin said he thought the fear of controversy over a famous name might explain the national trend away from honoring presidents, but Robert DuPree, chairman of the Loudoun County School Board, said he was less sure. "I don't get the sense that we have been afraid of controversy" in the recent naming of county high schools, including Woodgrove High School, which is scheduled to open next year.

Because both Loudoun and Prince William counties have opened new high schools named Freedom, Washington Post sports writers and editors have had to label one "Freedom-South Riding" and the other "Freedom-Woodbridge" to avoid confusion.

DuPree said he did not think that would be a problem because they were 30 miles apart. But he admitted that similar names can cause trouble. Eager to watch his daughter perform at a big track meet this spring, he arrived on time at Osbourn High School in Manassas to find no one there. It was, he learned, a common mistake, caused by his misreading Google. The meet was at Osbourn Park High School, not far away.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company