Renaming effort fails
Group drops push to rename West Park Elementary
A grassroots group has dropped its campaign to rename West Park Place Elementary School after the school’s principal and teachers remained steadfastly opposed to the idea.
The group had been petitioning the school board to name the school for the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who attended West Park from 1959 to 1963.
Robin Broomall, one of the leaders of the renaming effort, announced the group’s decision last week during a meeting of the committee tasked with hearing renaming proposals for the school district. Earlier in the week, her group met with representatives of the school and PTA.
“Rather than work toward some compromise or provide alternative options that would provide benefits, there was only a discussion of obstacles or reasons not to proceed,” Broomall said. “After 20 minutes of discussion, there was not even a glimmer of cooperation nor of accepting our proposal at this point. Therefore, our committee will withdraw our proposal.”
The renaming effort was 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 group quietly worked on the project for more than a year with little input from the school community.
Burns, 64, is known for his Public Broadcasting Service documentaries on the Civil War, baseball, jazz, national parks and, most recently, the Vietnam War.
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.
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 New- ark 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 envisioned a weekend-long slate of events, including the school dedication, a visit to Burns’ childhood home and a public lecture.
Broomall said Burns agreed to come but, due to his tight schedule, would only attend if the event included renaming the school.
She said last week that not renaming the school is a missed opportunity.
“I’m sure there will be many who will feel like they are winners in this and will be patting themselves on the back tomorrow morning, but I will remind them that with winners come losers, and the losers as we see it in this are the children of the school,” she said. “They will miss out on the opportunity to meet, talk with and learn from someone who sat in their classrooms, walked these halls and played baseball on the same ball diamonds as they do.”
School officials, however, pushed back against Broomall’s criticism.
“It sounded to me like the feeling is we failed to engage or we refused to engage or did not engage appropriately. That’s not true, to put it simply,” Principal Ledonnis Hernandez said. “We did engage, and I want it to be on the record that way. The fact that we don’t agree does not mean we failed to engage.”
She and many of the teachers have maintained they see no reason to change the name the school has had since 1954, noting that Burns has not had a connection to the school other than attending classes there decades ago.
“We feel very passionately about West Park; we feel very passionately about the name,” Hernandez said.
Broomall said renaming the school would bring “positive and favorable publicity” to West Park, but Nigel Pokoy, the school’s academic dean, argued the school al- ready has a good reputation.
“I don’t think the kids are losing out on this. We have a great school, we have a great community and a lot of great kids here who achieve a lot, and it shows in the awards we receive,” Pokoy said.
Michelle Kennard, a teacher at West Park, noted the school is one of only five in the district named for its location rather than a person, “which makes us stand out and makes us special.”
She added that she would support finding another way to honor Burns, such as placing a plaque front of the school.
“He is a very accomplished man, and we do want the kids to know and understand that,” Kennard said. “We just didn’t feel renaming the school was in the best interest of the children, nor did we understand the value of it in general.”
School board member John Young, who also serves on the renaming advisory committee, said he plans to propose amendments to the renaming rules to make it easier for groups to bring a proposal to the school board for a vote. Currently, opposition from the principal or PTA stops the process before it gets to the board.
Broomall said her group would consider reviving its proposal if the rules are changed.
“We’re keeping our options open,” she said.
A local group has dropped its campaign to rename West Park Place Elementary School after Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who attended classes there from 1959 to 1963.