In an ideal scenario, the months-long process of naming a school would be straightforward: Maybe the name mirrors that of the surrounding community or a popular landmark. It might honor a historic icon or a local hero, or commemorate a historic event.
But in reality, the naming of a new school — a process that involves school officials collaborating with residents, who might offer input through public comment or a naming committee — can be complicated by strong opinions and controversial history.
As fast-growing school districts across the Washington area prepare to open new buildings, officials and residents aim to strike a balance between honoring the past and preparing a school for its future, while choosing a name that generates widespread support.
It isn’t always an easy task. Take Loudoun County, where recent efforts to name a Dulles-area middle school, scheduled to open in 2017, were met with several challenges.
More than 7,600 Loudoun residents signed a petition urging the county school board to name the school after Mathias Giordano, a Loudoun fifth-grader who died of bone cancer in December. His name was presented to the board as an option, but board members voted in June to instead name the school after John F. Ryan, a Loudoun legislator who died in the 1930s.
That decision didn’t last long: Further research by school board member Bill Fox and Loudoun NAACP President Phillip Thompson revealed that Ryan was a Democratic leader at a time when the party had aggressively championed segregation laws in Virginia. On the heels of a growing national discussion about the use of Confederate symbols in public spaces, the school board quickly reversed course and canceled its plans to name the school after Ryan.
However, the board did not reconsider naming the school for Mathias. Wayde Byard, spokesman for the Loudoun public schools, said that the school system has a multitude of ways to honor deceased students and faculty members.
“Usually, for students who have passed, there is a memorial garden or a bench,” he said. “For former teachers or principals, sometimes it’s a library or a gym.”
When it comes to naming a school after someone, Byard said, the board is most likely to consider someone of historical significance “or someone who has made a longtime contribution to the community or the education of Loudoun County students.”
Similar guidelines are used throughout the Washington area, where many schools are named for famous figures: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Walt Whitman and Maya Angelou. In the District, the majority of schools are named for people, and many honor prominent African American leaders, such as scientist George Washington Carver or the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
Many other schools are named for people who had more local significance, such as Frances Hazel Reid, a longtime Loudoun journalist who died in 1994; or Flora Hendley, a veteran District educator who advocated for teachers’ pensions in the 1920s.
Finding a name that fits the vision of a particular school can be a challenge, said Kimberly Hall, former president of the Maya Angelou French Immersion School’s parent-teacher organization and a member of a committee responsible for helping to name the Prince George’s County school. The immersion program previously shared a building and a name with John Hanson Montessori School, but when the program moved independently to a new location, Hall said, it was time for a name of its own.
Members of an appointed committee knew they wanted to rename the school after a person, Hall said.
“We looked at folks who were affiliated with the French culture, folks who were instrumental in bringing French to the country and the state, and we looked at African Americans who played a historical role as it related to education and French,” Hall said. “We did our own research, just to make sure that there weren’t any skeletons in the closet. We didn’t want any controversial folks.”
The naming committee initially proposed three names to the county school board, she said: Pat Barr-Harrison, an educator in Prince George’s County; Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French-born American architect who designed the layout of the District’s streets; and Eugene Bullard, the first African American combat aviator, who flew in a French squadron in World War I.
None were accepted by the board, Hall said. So the committee returned with a single suggestion: Maya Angelou.
“Maya Angelou was a pioneer — obviously with civil rights, but she also knew and spoke multiple languages,” Hall said.
This time, the board approved the name, which went into effect last month, Hall said.
Although school officials have the final say in the naming process, the community’s opinion can be a deciding factor. When Montgomery County officials were faced with naming an elementary school in Clarksburg last year, they came up with a list of five names and sent them to the community for consideration, said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Montgomery public schools.
The community countered with a name that wasn’t on the list: Wilson Wims, a Clarksburg resident who lived in Montgomery during the era of Jim Crow laws and became a prominent member of the community and an inductee into the Montgomery County Human Rights Hall of Fame.
In March 2014, the board voted unanimously to name the new school after Wims, Tofig said.
“Ultimately, the board has the choice,” he said. “But the community’s voice is extremely important, and this showed just how important their voices are.”
In Loudoun, community members will have another opportunity to make their voices heard, when the committee to name the Dulles middle school reconvenes next month.
With its previous suggestions rejected by the school board, “I would say that the committee will be starting anew,” said Beverly Tate, Loudoun schools planning supervisor.
If all goes smoothly this time, another proposed name will probably be sent to the school board for review later in the fall, Tate said.
Across the Washington region, school names often commemorate local landmarks (geographical and historic), honor famous figures or memorialize prominent members of the community. Here are some examples:
Schools named for local landmarks:
→Antietam Elementary — Prince William County (named for the Civil War battlefield)
→Ball’s Bluff Elementary — Loudoun County (named to commemorate the 1861 Battle of Ball’s Bluff)
→Great Seneca Creek Elementary — Montgomery County (named for a nearby creek that feeds the Potomac River)
→Anacostia High — the District (named for the Anacostia River)
Schools named for famous figures:
→Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary — the District (named for the civil rights leader)
→Walt Whitman High — Montgomery County (named for the poet)
→Frederick Douglass Elementary — Loudoun County (named for the African American abolitionist and author)
→Neil Armstrong Elementary School — Fairfax County (named for the U.S. astronaut who was the first person to walk on the moon)
Schools named for community members:
→Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary — Montgomery County (named for a longtime Montgomery educator who died in 1962)
→Judith P. Hoyer Montessori — Prince George’s County (named for a longtime Prince George’s school official who died in 1997)
→John W. Tolbert Jr. Elementary — Loudoun County (named for a former Leesburg public official)