Re­nam­ing ef­fort fails

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

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.

NE­WARK POST FILE PHOTO

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.

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