The Albemarle County School Board has adopted new procedures for its policy on renaming division schools, and at a July 13 meeting officials provided a preview of naming decisions for the schools still awaiting their fate. In 2018, the board requested a name review for every county school that is named after a person, and eight schools have undergone such reviews over the past five years. The process will now speed up significantly, as the division plans to determine the fate of the remaining six school names by the end of this year.
The School Board reserves the right to rename schools at any time if the name is deemed inconsistent with the division’s vision, mission, goals, and values. Past renaming policies have required the establishment of a large advisory committee made up of school, parent, and community representatives, and each committee spent months creating and conducting surveys and researching the history of the school’s name, resulting in a final name recommendation presented to Superintendent Matt Haas.
Thus far, five schools have been renamed and three retained their original names. Past renaming efforts have been framed by Haas as important means to “get students involved in the process” and to close racial achievement gaps in student performance. However, in four of the five cases where schools have been renamed, the name with the largest amount of student support was not selected by the committee. In the most recent case, several members who served on the Meriwether Lewis Elementary review committee accused division officials—including Haas and Deputy Superintendent Daphne Keiser—of coercion, claiming that committee members were demeaned and pressured into changing their votes for the renaming of the school to Ivy Elementary.
Following the Meriwether Lewis review, School Board members asked that the policy’s wording be “tweaked” going forward. While the board’s stated intent is “to involve students, teachers and interested citizens that reflect the diversity of the Division’s community in the process of naming or renaming schools,” that process has been sharply curtailed in the new policy wording. Local advisory committees will not be assembled to consider schools’ current names, leaving the community less involved, not more.
The revised policy places the initial judgment of whether a school name should be retained in the hands of Director of Community Education Karen Waters, who managed the Meriwether Lewis renaming for the school division. Waters presented a recommendation on each of the six remaining names to the School Board in July based on her own research, and the board was apparently prepared to pass her recommendations along without even looking at that data. “Would it be possible for us to request from you some of the information that you dug into,” asked board member Jonno Alcaro just before Superintendent Haas began wrapping up. “I think it’d be great to review.”
Following the presentation, the board did not vote on Waters’ choices but instead will accept her recommendations in the Consent Agenda of its next meeting without discussion unless a board member specifically pulls the topic onto the regular agenda. If a school name is recommended to be changed, an advisory committee will be formed, but its role is relegated to the end of the process where it may not consider the school’s original name (or any other person’s name) and may suggest only names reflecting themes or geographic areas.
Henley Middle School is among the six remaining named schools, and Waters put it into the “Retain” group in her presentation, meaning the name is recommended to stay. Her research noted that Joseph T. Henley Sr. was a farmer who founded Henley’s Orchard and Holly Hill Farm in 1932, and he chaired the ACPS School Board from 1946 until 1960, when he was killed in a farming accident. “While his tenure with the School Board encompassed a very difficult time in ACPS history, research commissioned by the School Board in conjunction with the review of the Cale Elementary name [which was ultimately changed to Mountain View] ‘found nothing that appears problematic [with Henley],’” said Waters.
Waters’ recommendations, if passed through the board, will spare Baker-Butler, Stone Robinson, Jackson P. Burley, and Henley from a naming review, and will subject Agnor-Hurt and Walton to “further research.” While Crozet residents may be relieved not to have to go through the upheaval of a name change, several board members reiterated their distaste for schools named after people and indicated an impulse to go further on existing names.
“I have a bias against naming [a school] for a person because I want our names to be forward-looking,” said board member Judy Le. “I’m not sure how everybody got in the business of naming things after a person.”
“Interestingly enough,” said Waters, “back in the ’50s and ’60s when they were building schools, if someone died they’d just name the next school after that person. It was just sort of a convention of the day.”
Le questioned whether simply not finding anything “problematic” with a school name was a sufficient reason to keep it. “I wondered if it was more the lack of anything negative, or was it the presence of something positive that aligns with our values as well [that justifies keeping a name]?”
“It seems to me that even if you name [a school] after an exemplary individual, it shouldn’t be in perpetuity,” said board member Kate Acuff. “If you have to have several paragraphs to explain why the school was named after this person, then it seems [we could say] thank you very much for having your name on the school for the last 50 years, but maybe we should be forward-looking and adopt a value or place name that is unambiguously timely whenever it’s applied.”
“One of the nice details that’s included in the revised [renaming] policy,” said Waters, “is that each school’s name should be reviewed every 30 years.”