Meriwether Lewis School Undergoes Renaming Review

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The Meriwether Lewis School Renaming Committee and public speakers at their November 9 public meeting over Zoom.

Meriwether Lewis Elementary in Ivy is the eighth school to be evaluated under the Albemarle County school division’s drive to review the names of all 14 schools in the system that are named for a person. The School Board’s stated purpose of the review process is to “ensure that the names of all schools represent the division’s four values of equity, excellence, family and community, and wellness.” The board ordered the review in 2018 and seven school names have been appraised thus far, beginning with Cale Elementary, which was renamed Mountain View three years ago. 

An online survey of Meriwether Lewis School (MLS) constituents reported that 94% of respondents said they were familiar with the life and career of the school’s namesake, who was an early American explorer most famous for the Lewis and Clark expedition, which mapped a path to the westernmost parts of the U.S. under President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis was born in Ivy. When the 421 survey respondents were asked for name recommendations for the school, 89% suggested the name Meriwether Lewis.

Meriwether Lewis Elementary School on Owensville Road in Ivy.

A virtual public meeting was held on November 9, during which three members of the public spoke to the 12-member advisory committee charged with the review, which is chaired by Cheryl Wetmore-Simpson, an MLS teacher. Eduardo Montes-Bradley, whose three children have all attended MLS, supported keeping the school name. He drew upon his own relocation from a war-torn country 1,000 miles away to describe “the loss that comes with the destruction of geographical references.” “To me, changing the name of institutions is a drastic solution often brought [about] after traumatic episodes such as revolutions or colonial wars of liberation,” he said. “To change the name of Meriwether Lewis Elementary will be particularly damaging to the collective memory of the community that grew up around it.

“As a founding member of the President’s Commission on Slavery at UVA, I have actively worked to recognize the names of enslaved men and women and children who built that university,” Montes-Bradley continued. “Let’s tell the story of the people Meriwether Lewis and other prominent families have purchased and sold. Let [MLS] be what it has always been—an extraordinary institution for the education of our children—and let us tell a more complete history of the community and its peoples. Changing names is not a solution, it just hides the problem.”

Philip Hamilton, owner of the online Hamilton Historical Records site, said he didn’t think the school name should be changed. “Lewis and Clark were part of a grand expedition to find the western boundary of the U.S., and I think future generations of our children who live in this community should be aware of that,” he said. “It’s a cultural revolution when you’re going around renaming buildings that are institutions. Let’s focus on getting children educated, instead of wasting money on changing signs.”

Julie Govan, parent of four former and current MLS students, said, “we have very passionate feelings about that community and about everything that it has offered us including, I have to say, a deep affection for the name over the years. That said, I have some real concerns about … the process.” Govan wanted to understand Lewis’ history regarding slavery and to hear from descendants of the slaves that lived on his plantation, and she wanted to learn more about Native Americans’ position on the school name and to include the voices of people of color who have attended the school in the conversation. 

Govan asked the committee for more insight and information on how it makes its decision. “I would love it if this group, which has so much ability to influence things, could offer some transparency on the things that have been considered and publish that, because right now I think that’s been kind of a black box,” she said. “Whatever we do, we should commit to teaching the history of Meriwether Lewis beyond the exploration, making it clear to every MLS student what his full story is, the pluses and the minuses.”

Following the public meeting, the advisory committee narrowed the list of names under consideration to five for further community input: Blue Bird Elementary School, Discover/Expedition/Explorer Elementary School, Ivy Elementary School, Meriwether Lewis Elementary School, and Owensville Elementary School. The results of this survey will be tabulated and another public meeting will be held on November 29.

In 2019, Superintendent Matt Haas tied the renaming plan to the division’s concerted efforts to close the existing racial achievement gap in student assessments. “You get students involved in the process and you say, ‘here, [the school name] is your choice,’ and that empowers the students,” he said. “That’s our mission, to shift the climate away from an adult-centered environment. Once we get students involved, then it makes the name of the school more culturally relevant to those attending the school.”

However, in three of the four cases where schools have been renamed, the name with the largest amount of student support was not selected by the committee. In the Sutherland Middle School review, more than two-thirds of the school community (including 57% of students) voted to keep the Sutherland name, but the review committee did not include it in its three finalists and instead chose Lakeside. 

Despite strong community support for keeping the name Paul Cale, it was barred from consideration by its review committee. Cale Elementary students then suggested variants of the name (including Kale) as their top choice, but the committee did not include any variants in its six finalists. During the Jack Jouett Middle School review, almost 80% of survey respondents preferred to keep the Jouett name, but the committee chose Journey, the respondents’ fourth place choice. In each case, the review committees eliminated the original school name before the students’ final vote on the grounds that the name did not reflect the school division’s values.

If Meriwether Lewis ends up being one of the committee’s finalists, the committee will research the life of Mr. Lewis to determine if that name is consistent with the division’s values, and any descendants of the Lewis family will be notified of the naming review. The committee will have a final meeting on December 1 and will forward its recommendation to Superintendent Matt Haas, who will announce the school’s future name at the December 8 School Board meeting. 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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