J.E.B. Stuart High School’s students admit that like its Confederate general namesake, the school is coming out on the losing end of things.
Truancy issues. Lagging graduation rates. An average SAT score that is the second-lowest in Fairfax County. Plummeting teacher morale amid a crisis of leadership. In the fall, the Raiders football team lost eight of 10 games, including three shutouts.
“Losing, it would seem, is embedded in the school’s DNA,” Theo Lebryk, editor-in-chief of the school’s Raiders’ Digest newspaper wrote in a farewell column. “Failure is our forte.”
Perhaps it is fate, then, that Stuart finds itself in the middle of the growing debate about whether the nation’s schools should honor Confederate Civil War heroes. Stuart is among nearly 200 public schools carrying a name associated with the Confederacy, names that have drawn scrutiny in the aftermath of the mass shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina, which was carried out by an avowed white supremacist who waved the Confederate battle flag in photos he posted online.
And now the Stuart community is looking for a change, both in name and identity.
A group of rising seniors is campaigning for the school to drop J.E.B. Stuart’s name, hoping for something less polarizing, like Thurgood Marshall High, to honor the U.S. Supreme Court justice who argued on behalf of the NAACP in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case and also lived near the school.
A new principal took over the front office this spring, and the school’s administration is hoping for an academic overhaul.
“Stuart does have a bad reputation — no one can deny that,” said Cassie Marcotty, one of the seniors pushing for a name change. “We’re hoping it can rebrand the school and present it in a positive light.”
In the weeks since June’s massacre in Charleston, S.C., state leaders, local politicians and education officials have been reckoning with the physical reminders of the Civil War: statues, monuments, schools and streets that carry the names of those central to the Confederacy.
Two petitions, on Change.org, have emerged involving Stuart High and two other Fairfax schools: Robert E. Lee High, commemorating the top-ranking confederate general, and W.T. Woodson High, named for the Fairfax superintendent who led the school district’s heel-dragging desegregation efforts.
The first petition calls on the School Board to change the schools’ names.
Stuart opened in 1959, and Lee was founded in 1958, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered an end to school segregation in 1955. Veteran Stuart math teacher Bill Horkan said it’s hardly coincidental that two of the county’s newest high schools at the time were named after Confederate war heroes, since Virginia education officials engaged in a “massive resistance” campaign to hinder statewide integration. Stuart did not admit black students until 1961, according to archival Washington Post accounts.
“They wanted to make it as uncomfortable as possible for black students” to enroll, Horkan said.
The second Fairfax petition — which quickly garnered more signatures than the first — is fueled by Stuart and Lee alumni who want the schools to keep their names.
David Chagnon, a 1975 Lee graduate who started the petition against the petition, said that the Fairfax School Board should not bother renaming schools when the county faces more pressing education matters.
“I don’t think we should be changing names for history’s sake,” Chagnon said. He noted that those who want to retain the schools’ names do not necessarily mean to promote the Confederacy or slavery, they just want to honor tradition. “It’s not like they go around waving the rebel flag or anything like that.”
Stuart, in Falls Church, serves a student body that is racially diverse — 49 percent are hispanic, 24 percent are white, 14 percent are Asian and 11 percent are black. Stuart has the county’s highest percentage of students classified as English-language learners, and six in 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, also the highest percentage in the county.
Although President George W. Bush visited Stuart in 2005 to praise its academic achievements, the school has seen a steady decline since then. Last fall, the Virginia Department of Education gave the school “accredited with warning” status for the second year in a row after just 58 percent of students passed state math exams, compared with 81 percent of students countywide. SAT scores in 2014 dropped 72 points to a composite score of 1464.
Marcotty, 17, said that as “culturally and ethnically” diverse as the school is, “it makes no sense to be named after a man who wouldn’t support that if he were alive.”
Shirley Ginwright, president of the NAACP’s Fairfax County chapter, said the civil-rights group supports changing Stuart’s name to honor Marshall, who spent 24 years on the Supreme Court.
Stuart “was fighting with the Confederacy to keep slavery in place,” Ginwright said. “If they won, I’d still be picking cotton.”
School Board Chairman Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said that the administration will consider the issue for discussion in coming months.
“Recent events across the country have raised important questions about the symbols we choose to represent our communities,” she said. “In Fairfax, this includes the names of some of our school buildings. We recognize that there are legitimate concerns of students, parents and communities in these schools and whether those names best reflect their community. We also recognize that there are historic, legacy and financial concerns in making changes in the names of schools.”
Lisa McQuail, a descendant of Confederate soldiers who fought in the battles of Stones River and Raymond, graduated from Stuart in 1978. She said she felt compelled to be part of the name-changing petition because of the Charleston shootings and her own painful memories of the racially charged atmosphere at the school in the 1970s.
“When I saw that Dylann Roof was inspired by the Confederate flag and symbols of the Confederacy, I just knew right then in my heart that I had to do something,” McQuail said.
As a teenager, she recalled watching a mascot dressed in Confederate regalia wave a rebel battle flag on the sidelines at Stuart football games. She later took part in projects to soothe race relations at the school, to little avail. “Some of the things, we couldn’t fix,” she said. “Changing the name, we think, will help the current atmosphere at the school.”
School Board member Sandy Evans, whose Mason District includes Stuart High, said that any discussions about changing the school’s name “need to be approached in a very deliberate way. This is something that can’t be rushed through. It’s a significant change. It needs to be carefully considered.”