CLARIFICATION: An Oct. 25 article did not state Fairfax County's current policy on naming public schools. The school system's policy recommends using geographic or historical names, including names of people, for elementary and high schools, and the names of famous American writers for middle schools. The guidelines suggest avoiding names that could cause confusion with other schools, and they discourage using commercial subdivision names. (Published 11/10/1999)
There's Richard Montgomery, Col. E. Brooke Lee, Thomas W. Pyle and Earl B. Wood. Names like these of an illustrious Revolutionary War hero, a local Democratic Party boss, an obscure educator and a former school superintendent grace many of Montgomery County's 189 schools. In politically correct speak, names of dead white men, that is.
Tonight, the Board of Education plans to strike a blow for diversity. No longer will it trust communities to name a new school. Instead, the board will give the community four possibilities and say, "Pick one."
The reason for the policy change?
Too many dead white men. Too many nice, neutral geographic names. Too few women and minorities. And no schools named for Asian Americans.
"Schools can no longer identify with a single racial or ethnic or geographic community because they're bigger and broader," said board President Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County), a prime mover behind the name policy change. "We're not opposed to the idea of geographic names. We just think our communities can be a little more innovative."
If the sparse list of suggested names that school board members keep on file is any indication, they, too, could be more innovative. Among the recommendations: Thomas Henry Andrews Jr., a taxi driver who was murdered on duty. Anne Frank. Author James Mitchener (whose name is actually spelled Michener). Vincent T. Foo, a founder of the local supporting services union. Lewis and Clark. And Lee Jordan, a longtime custodian.
Once before, the school board tried to broaden the horizon, mandating in the early 1990s that communities consider women and minority choices.
Thus were born the schools Rachel Carson, Rosa M. Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Charles R. Drew and Sequoya Elementary, named for a Native American. James Hubert "Eubie" Blake, the black jazz pianist and composer, was chosen over the generic Northeast High School. Astronauts were big in this era: S. Christa McAuliffe, Judith A. Resnik, Sally K. Ride and Ronald A. McNair, a black astronaut.
But when the policy expired two years ago, so did the rainbow. The next round of schools got leafy names like Silver Spring International and Shady Grove, or the uninspiring but geographically correct North Bethesda and Northwest High School.
"Since the policy lifted, there hasn't been a single school named for a minority or woman," Felton said. "This is an important way we say we honor our diversity."
The issue now is being pushed heavily by Asian American residents. In letters, testimony before the board and intense personal lobbying, Asian Americans are making it clear they want the next school to reflect their presence: 11 percent in the county, 13 percent in the schools. That next school, now called Northwest Elementary School No. 6, isn't even slated to be built until 2001.
"Names are an important symbol that your contributions are valued, that you are part of the community," said Ginny Gong, past president of the Asian American Education Association. "There's no reason why there shouldn't be one out of 200 schools named after someone in our community."
Communities may not object so much to the goal but the board's way of getting there. Ana Sol Gutierrez, another former school board member, caught flak for pushing minorities for school names, such as Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican baseball star and humanitarian who died when his plane crashed en route to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
"I was called all kinds of things. Someone wrote that my next picks would be Fidel Castro and Lucretia Borgia," she said. "That's why I'd rather see the community select a name rather than the board. When you are so prescriptive, you get a backlash."
But Gong argues: "Isn't that all the more reason to do this? To show we will not tolerate these kinds of reactions. To show that Asian Americans are part of our community, not strangers, just because the name sounds different or we look different."
Navigating the tricky shoals of race, gender and ethnicity and coming up with just the right school name that, in many ways, defines a community and evokes a sense of belonging is no easy task. Principal John Burley has been through it twice. The first time, the community settled on Capt. James E. Daly Elementary school, named for the highest-ranking county police officer to be killed in the line of duty.
The second time, some people wanted Matthew Henson, the African American explorer who accompanied Adm. Robert E. Peary to the North Pole. Some wanted Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. Others wanted Arabic or Asian mathematicians. Still others wanted the school named for a popular African American tavern owner named Morris. "But most people said, 'We really can't name a school after a place where a lot of drinking and gambling was going on,' " Burley said.
Then came geographic names. A group of parents found that Gaithersburg's original name was Forest Oak. Ah, nice. A vast majority rallied around the name and thus Forest Oak Middle School was christened.
"People can take immediate pride in a geographic name and say, 'That's our neighborhood. That's our school,' " Burley said.
Indeed Fairfax County has had a no-people naming policy, preferring school appellations to reflect a sense of place. But even then, the policy can be less than satisfactory; witness the former Whiskey Bottom Elementary School in Howard County.
And who are those dead white guys anyway? John T. Baker? "I should know that," said board President Felton. William H. Farquhar? "No idea," he said.
Julius West? "I don't know," said Karen Yaffe Lottes, education program director with the Montgomery County Historical Society. She called over her shoulder, "Anybody know who Julius West is?" She said into the phone: "Nobody knows."
For the record, Baker was one of the first principals in the Damascus area early this century. Farquhar was from a prominent Quaker family and was instrumental in developing Montgomery County. And, according to Yaffe Lottes, who called back after a quick look, West died in 1860 and left his land to the private, now-defunct Rockville Academy. His tombstone reads: "A good citizen in life. A wise benefactor in death."
"Sometimes," Yaffe Lottes said, "we look at these names and wonder."
At least at some point in history, the names meant something to the communities that chose them.
"Having gone through it, I can't tell you the amount of excitement that's involved when someone is called to be on a committee to name a brand new school," Burley said. "If their choices are constrained and constricted, that will put a damper on the excitement, the brainstorming and the creative freedom people have felt."