Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - INSIGHT -

As Austin school trustees move ex­pe­di­tiously to re­brand five schools stripped of names of Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers and sol­diers, they also are re­vis­ing school-nam­ing poli­cies to re­flect the dis­trict’s core val­ues, chang­ing de­mo­graph­ics and his­tor­i­cal wrongs.

We wel­come their ac­tions, which are over­due. The names of schools should serve as an in­spi­ra­tion to stu­dents to achieve and a bea­con to the broader com­mu­nity re­gard­ing the val­ues as­so­ci­ated with pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

Con­fed­er­ate names have been an en­dur­ing in­sult to many Austin ISD par­ents, teach­ers, stu­dents and tax­pay­ers, who are aware the Con­fed­er­acy was founded on an im­moral cause: to main­tain the en­slave­ment of black men, women and chil­dren in Texas and through­out the South. Time has marched on. Those names should have been shed decades ago.

As early as this sum­mer, six schools bear­ing Con­fed­er­ate names will have un­der­gone name changes. The ef­fort won’t stop there, how­ever. Trus­tee Cindy An­der­son told us that 62 schools that are at least 50 years old will un­dergo a re­view to de­ter­mine whether their names are suit­able for to­day’s cam­puses and align with dis­trict val­ues that, thank­fully, have evolved over a decade.

“We should have names our stu­dents and com­mu­ni­ties can look up to,” An­der­son said.

An­der­son and Trus­tee Geron­imo Ro­driguez are spear­head­ing the re­write of school-nam­ing poli­cies that will be ap­plied to cur­rent cam­puses and new schools that open. They are aim­ing for guide­lines that help the pub­lic un­der­stand why many school names might no longer be ap­pro­pri­ate — or why the names of women should rise to the top for new schools. Along with that, they are work­ing to up­grade on­line tools to guide the pub­lic through the process. They have ex­am­ined poli­cies of Dal­las, Hous­ton and some San An­to­nio dis­tricts.

Austin’s first school to be re­named be­cause of its tie to the Con­fed­er­acy was Robert E. Lee El­e­men­tary in west-cen­tral Austin, named to honor the well­known Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral and slave­owner. That was in 2016.

The five schools await­ing new names are: the Al­lan fa­cil­ity, for­merly Al­lan El­e­men­tary, named for John T. Al­lan, an of­fi­cer in the Con­fed­er­ate Army; Rea­gan High, named for John H. Rea­gan, the Con­fed­er­acy’s post­mas­ter gen­eral; East­side Me­mo­rial High at John­ston, named for Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Al­bert S. John­ston; Lanier High, named for Sid­ney Lanier, a noted poet who fought for the Con­fed­er­acy; and Ful­more Mid­dle School, named for Zachary Tay­lor Ful­more, a pri­vate in the Con­fed­er­ate army.

Austin School Su­per­in­ten­dent Paul Cruz says the dis­trict is likely to move on two tracks: One is us­ing the cur­rent process to re­name the five schools, whose Con­fed­er­ate names were re­moved last month. Go­ing for­ward, schools will come un­der a new sys­tem that sim­pli­fies the process, adds some checks and bal­ances, gen­er­ates pub­lic en­gage­ment and has a heavy em­pha­sis on ed­u­cat­ing the com­mu­nity about the rea­sons for chang­ing school names.

A change in the works cur­rently will be set up by Cruz, who will ap­point peo­ple to an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee. Cruz wants a di­verse com­mit­tee made up of par­ents, teach­ers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from or­ga­ni­za­tions, such as the lo­cal Anti-Defama­tion League and Austin Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple.

The group will fo­cus on craft­ing cri­te­ria for re­nam­ing schools, but won’t come up with names, though it might help whit­tle down sub­mis­sions of names from the pub­lic and in­di­vid­ual schools by de­ter­min­ing if they align with dis­trict val­ues.

Pro­posed changes re­flect a more prag­matic — and thought­ful — ap­proach to a topic that has stirred con­tro­versy and emo­tions.

There is much tra­di­tion as­so­ci­ated with school names, par­tic­u­larly among alumni who can be a key fundrais­ing arm for in­di­vid­ual cam­puses. Un­der­stand­ably, there is con­cern that tra­di­tions and con­nec­tions to cam­puses can get lost in a re­nam­ing process. Those con­cerns are le­git­i­mate — but they can be man­aged when han­dled sen­si­bly with the kind of re­search and plan­ning trustees are do­ing.

For in­stance, An­der­son says the board has asked for a spread­sheet of the dis­trict’s 130 schools that de­tails their age, names, when they were named, who or what they were named af­ter, and what con­tri­bu­tions to the school or com­mu­nity are as­so­ci­ated with the name. We would add that also should break out the gen­der, race and eth­nic­ity of peo­ple whose names are on schools, and des­ig­nate names that rep­re­sent places or neigh­bor­hoods.

An­der­son says and we agree that such re­search can go a long way in ed­u­cat­ing the pub­lic about why their schools carry the names they do. It can il­lus­trate why, for in­stance, trustees might want to name more schools af­ter women, peo­ple of color or neigh­bor­hoods. It also can help ex­plain why the dis­trict should spend the es­ti­mated $77,000 as­so­ci­ated with re­nam­ing schools.

No one ex­pects a new pol­icy to elim­i­nate all hard feel­ings from such de­ci­sions. It will be trustees who have the fi­nal say about names. Nonethe­less, clearer guide­lines would help peo­ple bet­ter un­der­stand why some names adopted half a cen­tury ago are so of­fen­sive to­day. A uni­form ap­pli­ca­tion that spells out all that is needed for sub­mit­ting names also would help the dis­trict steer clear of nam­ing schools based on a pop­u­lar­ity con­test.

Lee El­e­men­tary would have been Don­ald Trump El­e­men­tary School if the dis­trict had gone with the most pop­u­lar rec­om­men­da­tion, said Rox­anne Evans, a for­mer school dis­trict of­fi­cial and mem­ber of the East Austin Coali­tion for Qual­ity Ed­u­ca­tion.

We have urged Cruz and com­pany to pre­serve sym­bols, signs and other ar­ti­facts that are re­moved from schools to help peo­ple un­der­stand the past as well as the fu­ture. We are heart­ened by changes that — as Trus­tee Yas­min Wag­ner ob­served — are fi­nally putting the dis­trict on “the right side of his­tory.”


Rea­gan High, named for the Con­fed­er­acy’s post­mas­ter gen­eral, will get a new name.

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