School Notes: January 2021

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Alison Dwier-Selden, principal of Murray Elementary, which is currently undergoing a naming review. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Name Game

In the fall of 2018, the Albemarle County School Board directed the Superintendent to review the names of all schools in the division that are named after people. The review is intended to ensure that each school name reflects the division values of “excellence, young people, community and respect.” Since then, three schools have undergone a review—Cale Elementary became Mountain View, Sutherland Middle School became Lakeside, and Murray High School is still considering its proposed new name, Rose Hill Community School.

As Murray Elementary in Ivy is named for the same person as Murray High School, Superintendent Matt Haas announced last fall that it will be the next school to be reviewed, and a 17-person committee has been named and has begun its work. “So far we’ve had our first meeting to kind of organize and talk through the process, and our next step will be to send out a survey with questions soliciting input from the community about the name and that sort of thing,” said Murray principal Alison Dwier-Selden. “There’s a very specific step-by-step process that’s been developed by the school division, and we will follow that process.”

Murray Elementary and High Schools were named for Virginia L. Murray, a teacher born in 1897 who attended college at Howard University and received a master’s degree from New York University. She taught in Albemarle county and was appointed Supervisor of Elementary Education, the first black supervisor to be appointed in the county. 

When it was built in 1960, Murray Elementary School served only black students from first through seventh grades. The school was desegregated five years later. “Murray High School was in this building briefly and when they moved, they took the name with them,” said Dwier-Selden, “and then this school reopened as an elementary, so for some time there have been two Murrays.”

The first three reviews have been a bumpy road. The Cale review lasted 11 months and hinged on a paraphrased statement that was viewed as racist attributed to former superintendent Paul Cale in a 1956 magazine article. Cale’s family, friends, and former colleagues strongly protested the defamation of Cale’s character during the review, and students overwhelmingly suggested variants of the name Cale (including Kale) as their top choice for the school’s name, but the review committee did not include Cale in its six finalist names.

In the Sutherland review, more than two-thirds of the school community (including 57% of students) voted to keep the Sutherland name even as research documents showed that Mortimer Sutherland had supported school segregation in the 1950s and 60s while serving on the school board. While Superintendent Haas has stated that a key driver of the naming review project is to provide “student involvement that empowers the students” in support of the division’s efforts to close racial achievement gaps, the review committee did not include Sutherland’s name in its three finalists. 

The Murray High School naming committee selected the name Rose Hill Community School (though 45% of survey respondents asked to keep the Murray name and 20% voted for Rose Hill), only to reverse course after being denounced by Charlottesville community members who said the site of the school was previously the site of an estate called Rose Hill Plantation. That naming process is currently on hold as committee members do further research on the issue, and the Murray Elementary review was spurred in part by those events.

“During the Murray High School process, people became concerned that if the name Murray was not selected, then [they] were potentially taking away the name of a building for a noted African American educator,” said Dwier-Selden. “There were a lot of people in the community who did not know that there was another school named Murray, so Dr. Haas decided that there might be some wisdom in running this committee now, so that we would go ahead and decide what our name will be.”

Dwier-Selden said that Murray will include students in the process in ways that transcend simply voting on a new name. “We do have two teachers, Hollins Mills [kindergarten] and Laura Richardson [talent development specialist], who invited a committee of children to do a process that in some way parallels ours, so that children get a kind of civic example of what it’s like to get involved and think deeply about what your school stands for,” she said. “They’ll get an opportunity to study Ms. Murray as an educator in Albemarle county just as we are doing the same.”

The Murray committee consists of school staff, parents, community members, and alumni. After the committee’s next meeting in January, they plan to release a survey to the Murray community soliciting ideas for what the school’s name should be. The committee will then narrow the list to several finalists, research those suggestions, and make a recommendation to the Superintendent, who will then make a recommendation to the School Board.

Janet Turner-Giles, current member of the Nelson County School Board and newly-elected president of the Virginia School Boards Association. Submitted photo.

Local Leader

Nelson County School Board member Janet Turner-Giles was elected president of the Virginia School Boards Association in the fall of 2020, and she’s thrilled to step into the position. “The VSBA is an organization like no other,” said Turner-Giles. “They really stick to their mission and core values of providing leadership, advocacy, and services. I’ve served in other roles [within the VSBA] and have really taken advantage of all they have to offer in terms of educational opportunities and conferences because I believe that’s how you learn.”

Turner-Giles is herself a product of the Nelson county school system, as are her husband and children (currently in sixth and ninth grade), and her father was a 40-year educator in Nelson. Given that investment, serving on the school board was simply “the right thing to do,” she said. “I’ve got a genuine interest in making things better for all students, and I have found that being member of the school board has provided an opportunity to ensure that others have a voice. I can be a conduit for other people’s concerns and interests, and I strongly believe that one person’s voice can actually change the world.”

Because of her family’s history in the area and the fact that she spends time in the schools and at PTO meetings with other parents, Turner-Giles feels she is visible and approachable, which is “the most important part of this job,” she said. Beyond her volunteer work with both the local and state school board organizations, she also serves on multiple Governor’s boards and is a manager in the University of Virginia’s Office of Human Resources. “Most people tip their toe into things, and I kind of tip my whole body in,” she said with a laugh.

Reflecting on the pandemic’s impact on schools in 2020, Turner-Giles finds a silver lining. “This has been an extraordinary year,” she said. “This pandemic has probably shined a light on inequities that have truly existed in education and in the world, and it shined a light where everyone could see it. In that respect this has been the hardest year ever.” She noted that, unlike budget or other policy debates, “[T]his pandemic has involved everyone—the students, the parents, the grandparents, community members, so everyone has had a stake in this year’s education. That’s an excellent thing, because I think people finally recognize how critical education is, not just to the schools, but to the community.

“As a result of that, I pray that this becomes the launching pad for how everyone becomes more involved in the education of the students in their locality,” she said. “I have been amazed at the audiences I have seen come to the school board meetings this year. I think the idea of us [in Nelson] having to move to a virtual platform for some of our meetings has increased our audiences, and that’s a great thing.”

Though she’s only just started at the VSBA, she’s finding that fast-moving events are immersing her in the job. “Every day there has been an issue or something that I’ve needed to tackle,” she said. “There are impromptu meetings with the executive board, quarterly meetings with the full board, conferences that I moderate, or just something that requires a string of four or five phone calls to resolve. Every day it’s something different.”

Despite the pace, Turner-Giles loves the work and she sees a key role for the VSBA in what happens next. “I think the stakes of educating students are higher now than they’ve ever been before, and I think as an organization our role is now going to be creating what that new normal looks like in education,” she said. “It will be the school board members of today paving the way for the future of education tomorrow and that’s probably what I am most excited about.”

Energetic and optimistic, Turner-Giles envisions school systems emerging from the current crisis with more fluidity and dynamism. “I can’t think of a more exciting time to be a part of this because this time next year it’s all going to look different,” she said. “I think we are bold enough and strong enough to make some unique changes that can only better education down the road, but I pray we don’t go back to all of the way it used to be. I honestly feel that we have learned that in some cases some of this virtual/hybrid remote learning may very well work for some, but it may not work for all, so is there a way to blend or mold all of that into one? I believe it can be done, I just don’t truly know what it looks like in the end.” 

Congratulations and good luck, Ms. Turner-Giles!  

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