Group: Rename West Park Elementary
Principal, teachers oppose idea to name school for Ken Burns
A grassroots group is urging the Christina School District to rename West Park Place Elementary School after Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who attended classes there from 1959 to 1963.
However, the idea is opposed by the West Park principal, its teachers and at least some PTA members, who say renaming the school would hurt its identity. West Park, named for the road it’s located on, is one of only five district schools not named for a person.
The renaming effort is sponsored by the Newark Morning Rotary Club and
organized by a local group called Friends of Ken Burns, led by former state senator Steve Amick and his wife, Louise. The proponents note that Burns has spoken fondly of his time in Newark and how it influenced his career.
“His story is not only a touching one but also reminds us how our lives are shaped by the people who surround us,” they wrote in a petition to the district administration.
Burns, 64, is known for his Public Broadcasting Service documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, jazz and national parks. His latest film, a 10-part series on the Vietnam War, is currently airing.
The filmmaker was born in Brooklyn in 1953 and his family moved to Newark two years later when his father took a job as a professor of anthropology at the University of Delaware. The family spent eight years in Newark, living at 827 Lehigh Road in the Binns, one of the first new neighborhoods built in Newark during the post-war suburban boom.
In a speech he gave to the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2016, Burns described watching his dad, an amateur photographer, build a dark room in the basement of the home and then develop photos taken in France.
“Without me knowing it, of course, my father was somehow introducing me, perhaps unintentionally guiding me, to my life’s work, an observer of the history of my culture,” he said.
The Amicks met Burns in 2000 when they hosted him at the unveiling of a Delaware memorial at Gettysburg. Burns delivered the keynote address at the ceremony.
Louise Amick said her family spent the weekend with Burns at a bed-andbreakfast and recalled how talkative the filmmaker was, especially with their son, who at the time was 11 years old and attending West Park.
Over the years, she’s noticed that Burns often talks about his childhood in Newark when giving speeches and decided to mount an effort to entice him to return to the city for a public “Ken Burns Day” celebration. The Friends group is planning a weekend-long slate of events, including the school dedication, a visit to Burns’ childhood home and a public lecture.
Burns will attend the yetunscheduled event “upon the condition the school is renamed in his honor,” according to the petition. The Rotary Club will pay for new signs and cover other costs associated with the renaming.
Last year, the school board approved a formal process for naming or renaming a school or other facility after the district realized that it had no established process.
A sponsoring organization must submit a formal request, including rationale for the renaming, a petition signed by 100 community members, letters of support from local state legislators, recommendations from people who know the individual and letters of consent from the school principal and PTA. The proposal first goes to a renaming review committee and then to the school board for ultimate approval.
The renaming review committee held its first meeting Sept 27.
While Principal Ledonnis Hernandez wrote a letter giving the Friends group consent to move forward in the process, she made it clear at the meeting that she opposes the renaming.
“I absolutely do not support a name change for West Park,” Hernandez said. “Overwhelmingly, teachers in the building don’t support a name change.”
She later explained that West Park has a good reputation and she sees no reason to change the name that has been used for more than 60 years.
“We love West Park, we love the students, we love the families,” he said. “But we love the school as West Park.”
Hernandez noted that Burns has not had a connection to the school other than attending classes there decades ago.
“We don’t see the benefit for our school community,” she said. “It’s about, ‘Does it help the kids?’ We don’t see that it does.”
Julianne Harp, who was president of the West Park PTA when the Amicks approached the group seeking support last year, wrote in a letter that West Park is a fixture in Newark and changing the name would cause the school to lose some of its positive associations.
“There is such strong name recognition (from having been around for over 60 years) when you say you are affiliated with West Park Elementary, people always know where you are talking about and generally have a great story to go along with it,” Harp wrote.
Sensing the disagreement, the review committee told the two sides to meet and attempt to reach a consensus. Christine McCarl, a parent who serves on the committee, said the Friends group has not been transparent in its efforts.
While it did give a presentation to the PTA, the group largely attempted to keep its efforts under wraps until last week’s meeting. Newark Morning Rotary Club President Robin Broomall said proponents wanted to have their pitch solidified before going public.
“Rumors can get out of hand. We didn’t want this to be part of the rumor mill without some background info,” she said. “We wanted to be careful about who was finding out about this information.”
Now that opposition has surfaced, she said the Friends group will meet and decide how to move forward.
“Now we need to take a step back and approach it as a whole new idea and work with the West Park community,” Broomall said. “Working together, we’ll see if this can happen. It’s not a fait accompli.”
Before the school board decides on the proposal, there will be several opportunities for the public to comment on the proposal. The first will come at the next review committee meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25 in the West Park cafeteria.
A local group is urging the Christina School District to rename West Park Place Elementary School after Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who attended classes there.
Ken Burns attended West Park Place Elementary School from 1959 to 1963.