Group: Re­name West Park El­e­men­tary

Prin­ci­pal, teach­ers op­pose idea to name school for Ken Burns

Newark Post - - FRONT PAGE - By JOSH SHAN­NON jshan­non@ches­pub.com

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.

NE­WARK POST FILE PHOTO

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.

SUB­MIT­TED PHOTO

Ken Burns at­tended West Park Place El­e­men­tary School from 1959 to 1963.

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