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What's in a School's Name? Presidents Out, Plants In

Poor George Washington. Honestly, Abe is out. The straight truth is that TR has been shelved. A new study of how American school systems name their new schools concludes that presidents are passe and the school boards that have all too many culture wars to fight have collectively decided that this is one area in which they can easily avoid controversy by naming new buildings after plants, places and other natural features.

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, according to the new study by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute and two researchers from the University of Arkansas, when the school board replaced the old Jefferson Elementary School, the president's name vanished from the system's ranks. Rather than name the new school for favorite son Bill Clinton or the eminent Arkansas politician and scholar J. William Fulbright, the board avoided any possibility of political backlash and went with "Owl Creek." Ain't that sweet?

The study found that a majority of American school systems now do not have a single school named after a president. That's obviously not the case in our area, where the Montgomery, Fairfax, Prince George's and D.C. systems, just to look at our four largest systems, still have presidential and other political names. But look at the new names locally, and you see that the trend found in the study is absolutely happening here too.

The conservative Manhattan Institute obviously has a purpose in undertaking this study, and it is a valid and noble purpose. As the authors say, "school names can shape values by providing educators with a teaching opportunity: teachers at a Lincoln Elementary, for example, can reference the school name to spark discussions of the evils of slavery and the benefits of preserving our union." The retreat to names of plants, animals and hills is as cowardly as it is bland.

Locally, Fairfax County schools have a policy suggesting guidelines for picking new names, and it's not exactly one that encourages the bold or the potentially educational:

1. Consistency with other school names at the elementary, middle, or high school level, as appropriate. In general, elementary schools and high schools have geographic or historical names; middle schools are named for famous American writers.

2. A preference for names reflecting geographic and historic features of an area. Submission of commercially adopted subdivision names is strongly discouraged.

3. The avoidance of names that could cause confusion with other schools in Fairfax County and/or with schools in adjoining jurisdictions and other areas of Virginia.

Over in Loudoun County, which probably builds more new schools each year than all of the close-in, built-out suburban counties combined, the school board just last week approved the names of three new schools:

naming ES-18 in the South Riding Station subdivision, Liberty Elementary School. ...naming ES-19 in the One Loudoun subdivision in Ashburn, Steuart W. Weller Elementary School. ...naming HS-3 to be located adjacent to Mountain View Elementary School, Woodgrove High School.

Liberty and Woodgrove are about as generic as school names can get. They tell a child zilch about the place in which he lives or about the ideals of the school (who exactly opposes liberty?) Sadly, the system picked Liberty over Buffalo Trail, the suggestion of Loudoun schools librarian Sarah Lichter, who had done research showing that American Indians used to transport buffalo along the trail that is today Route 50. That would have been a cool name with an instant link to a local and lively history lesson.

But Loudoun is on a post-9/11 freedom kick, and has now named new schools Freedom High and Liberty Elementary.

Steuart Weller, it turns out, was the owner of a local tiling business who volunteered in the schools and as a firefighter, a good guy who died earlier this year. Loudoun does tend to name some schools after local figures such as Weller, Rosa Lee (a longtime teacher), Frances Reid (a Loudoun Times-Mirror reporter), and John Tolbert (a former member of the Leesburg Town Council.)

The study found that naming schools after any people at all--let alone presidents or the nation's founders--is a practice in steep decline, with state after state halving the number of schools it names after human beings in the past two decades, while trees, lakes and hills gain popularity.

Why is this happening? We could blame the culture, the authors say, looking at "increased skepticism of inherited wisdom, revisionist history, and increased interest in the environment." But that doesn't explain the political decision to move away from honoring American history.

"Shrinking from a fight over naming schools may be symptomatic of a broader problem with civic education," the study says. "To teach civics effectively, schools have to be willing to take a stand. To teach tolerance, they have to be intolerant of intolerance. To teach the virtues of democracy and liberty, schools have to argue that democracies are superior systems of government. The unwillingness of school boards to take stands when naming schools may indicate a reluctance to take the stands necessary to teach civics effectively."

The study theorizes that school board elections have become marginalized, taking place in off-years, and increasingly dominated by people inside the school systems, people with reason to be extra cautious about controversy.

Of course, there is another way, the one chosen by the school system that I grew up in. As a kid, I was a student at Public Schools 97, 24, and 7. Stirring, huh? (And, man, did we have some emotionally moving songs. "Oh, seven, dear seven....")

(We'd like to bring back the reader comments in the print version of Raw Fisher; to do that, we need to verify who's writing the comment. If you would like your comments on this item to be considered for publication in the print edition of The Post, please forward a copy of your blog comment to marcfisher@washpost.com and please include your name and phone number for verification. If you'd rather post only by handle here on the blog, please feel free to go ahead and do just that.)


By Marc Fisher |  July 3, 2007; 7:17 AM ET
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Comments

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The big problem are groups who insist that the next school needs to be named after a famous black, Latino, Asian, etc. person. Then you have those really pointless school board debates that these school systems want to avoid.

MoCo's "name" schools tend to be the older high schools. I doubt you could get Magruder, Wootton or even Walter Johnson approved today.

Posted by: dgc | July 3, 2007 8:23 AM

The fact that it is politically difficult or controversial to name a new school after a traditional American hero or icon demonstrates the extent of the disintegration of out nation.

Posted by: stegman | July 3, 2007 8:41 AM

The fact that it is politically difficult or controversial to name a new school after a traditional American hero or icon demonstrates the extent of the disintegration of our nation.

Posted by: stegman | July 3, 2007 8:41 AM

I just don't trust a source that lists Bill Kristol on its board of trustees.

Posted by: Sorry | July 3, 2007 9:12 AM

Well, the problem is that what hero doesn't have flaws? Bill Clinton? Martin Luther King? Franklin Roosevelt? Someone, somewhere, is going to accuse them of something ludicrous. I would say though, that calling the school "Liberty" is almost as lame as all those kids with generic non-names like Madison and Hunter and Traylor. I had friends in Loudon who couldn't come up with a name for their daughter so they took one syllable from the Dad's name and one from the Mom's and while I can't post the name here, it's every bit as bad as "Briley."

Posted by: DCer | July 3, 2007 9:30 AM

Ah, the joy of attending a high school named after the town.......

Posted by: davewczx9r | July 3, 2007 9:35 AM

Wow, did you run out of topics and have to scrape the bottom of the barrel?

After all, I never learned anything about Lincoln since I didn't attend a school named after him.

Marc, it would be better to say "I don't really have anything local to complain about that I haven't already covered 14 times previously."

Posted by: BDTLR, VA | July 3, 2007 9:52 AM

We have a Freedom High School in Prince William County; it opened in 2004, so its naming was certainly due to the rally-round-the-flag mentality post 9/11. Much the same thing happened after 1963, as schools were named (or renamed) after John F. Kennedy. (It's interesting that for all the things the Republicans have been able to name for Ronald Reagan in recent years -- airports, buildings, highways -- schools have largely been an exception. I'm sure the everything-is-ideology crowd will blame the teachers' unions for that.)

Posted by: Vincent | July 3, 2007 9:54 AM

I attended Stephen Foster Middle School in Fairfax county. Of course, the school has been renamed to Mark Twain Middle School, for pretty much the same reason that "Carry me back to Old Virginny" is no longer the state song.

Posted by: spidey103 | July 3, 2007 9:57 AM

The trend in naming schools in Montgomery County has been to honor minorities, including women, but only when deceased, i.e. Rachel Carson, Matthew Henson, etc. I think this practice is worthwhile, and certainlt presents teaching opportunities.

Posted by: mocoboy | July 3, 2007 9:58 AM

2 of the most recent Montgomery County high schools are named Northwest (it's in the Northwest portion of the county) and Clarksburg. These 2 names fit the profile of the article. You can't just look at the current list of HS in the county as most of them have been around a while. Instead you need to look at the more recnt school names.

Posted by: Dsmac | July 3, 2007 10:01 AM

?? "Fairfax County schools have a policy suggesting guidelines for picking new names, and it's not exactly one that encourages the bold or the potentially educational:"

But then, "In general, elementary schools and high schools have geographic or historical names; middle schools are named for famous American writers."

Geography, history, and American literature aren't educational? The Loudon-rejected "Buffalo Trail" would seem to be exactly the kind of name (geographic AND historical) encouraged by Fairfax's policy. (Are they actually naming schools according to the policy? I don't know. but the policy itself doesn't seem to be the problem).

Posted by: Anonymous | July 3, 2007 10:16 AM

?? "Fairfax County schools have a policy suggesting guidelines for picking new names, and it's not exactly one that encourages the bold or the potentially educational:"

But then, "In general, elementary schools and high schools have geographic or historical names; middle schools are named for famous American writers."

Geography, history, and American literature aren't educational? The Loudon-rejected "Buffalo Trail" would seem to be exactly the kind of name (geographic AND historical) encouraged by Fairfax's policy. (Are they actually naming schools according to the policy? I don't know. but the policy itself doesn't seem to be the problem).

Posted by: Anonymous | July 3, 2007 10:16 AM

Marc - how much proof do you have that names like Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson are abandoned due to political correctness? The Fayetteville example may be isolated, and I do not trust the Manhattan Institute to tell me the time of day. I'd prefer to see a non-partisan report with solid evidence of this "trend" before taking it seriously. In the meantime, we should treat your blog entry as mere conjecture.

Posted by: SSMD | July 3, 2007 10:32 AM

In the region I grew up, all schools were named after the town (e.g. Kennebunk Middle School, Kennebunk High School) and if there were multiple schools in the same town/city, they were named after the street (Park Street School, Sea Road School). Only private schools were actually named after people.

Posted by: Town names worked for us | July 3, 2007 10:36 AM

Slow news day Marc?

Posted by: Rob Iola | July 3, 2007 10:37 AM

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, and just about all our schools were named after the neighborhood, or other geographic markers. I think there was one elementary school named after an important superintendent. That school was torn down to make room for a shopping center. Sic transit gloria...

Posted by: mark | July 3, 2007 10:47 AM

"The study found that a majority of American school systems now do not have a single school named after a president."

Yes, but did anybody do a study in 1950 to test this? the fact remains that the majority of school systems are in small town America, with only one or two elementary/jr. highs, and a single high school, most of those are named geographically. So it shouldn't be surprising that a lot of "school systems" don't have any presidentially-named schools.

It's only in population-dense areas on the coasts and in major metropolitan areas that this "phenomenon" is even an issue. And, as you pointed out, part of the problem there is that there are multitudes of schools in those school systems, and most already have a Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Kennedy on the books, so they need to go find new names.

All in all, this is a major non-story.

Posted by: Voice of Reason | July 3, 2007 11:06 AM

Wasn't there a comedy a few years back that took place in "Marion Barry High School"?

Posted by: Dan | July 3, 2007 11:26 AM

Fairfax won't name their high schools any name thats used elsewhere in VA or the DC area, but Loudoun and Prince William both have a Freedom HS... Either someone wasn't doing their homework or their post 9/11 kick went straight to their head. Fairfax did however name their most recent secondary school South County, so I wonder why they decided against naming it for where it is (Lorton) or naming it for famous American Statesman or Confederate Generals like the rest of the high schools in the county? I agree the names are getting as cheesy as subdivision names though.

Posted by: xtr657 | July 3, 2007 11:39 AM

That movie was the Jon Lovitz vehicle High School High. I don't know why I know that.

Posted by: To Dan | July 3, 2007 11:44 AM

But what about the times when a twofer is possible, places where the town shares a presidential name? Places like Cleveland, Lincoln, Neb., Jackson, Miss., Washington, Jefferson City, Mo., Johnson City, Texas, and of course Nutbush, Tennessee!

Posted by: kurosawaguy | July 3, 2007 11:48 AM

I'm a graduate of Freedom HS in Bethlehem, PA, which opened in 1967, so this is nothing new. The older high school in town (originally Bethlehem High) was renamed Liberty after WW II. Not only a lack of imagination but somewhat ironic, as Freedom looked like a prison, with the slit windows then in vogue.

An early-1970s Robert Klein album made the same point about going to school in NYC: the mock school song "Eighty, dear eighty, your name will rise above...79." By the way, he's still funny.

Posted by: gottacook | July 3, 2007 11:51 AM

Jeeze. Does a school need to be named "Lincoln" High before the teachers are allowed to talk about Lincoln? That Manhattan Institute sounds like a crock.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 3, 2007 12:09 PM

I can hear the kids talking now:

Dude 1: Where do you go to school.
Dude 2: Poison Ivy High. How 'bout you?
Dude 1: Venus Flytrap High.
Dude 2: That bites.

Posted by: SoMD | July 3, 2007 12:20 PM

"school names can shape values by providing educators with a teaching opportunity: teachers at a Lincoln Elementary, for example, can reference the school name to spark discussions of the evils of slavery and the benefits of preserving our union."

Right, because teachers never ever bring that sort of thing up in schools not named after people. The Manhattan Institute is made up of some crazy neocons, but this is a stretch, even for them.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 3, 2007 12:44 PM

"teachers at a Lincoln Elementary, for example, can reference the school name to spark discussions of the evils of slavery and the benefits of preserving our union"

I'd bet the Manhattan Institute would love a school named, "Martyrs of Communism High School." Perhaps we should name ALL schools for Ronald Reagan.

Posted by: CT | July 3, 2007 1:28 PM

Fairfax County's South County Secondary was chosen by a group of parents, students, teachers and administrators for the school. The school board approved sseveral names and allowed the school to vote. While in planning and construction the school was called the South County site, the community chose to keep the name. I know other names that were considered included Rosa Parks, Laurel Hill (after the community), Lorton, South Fairfax, and Clara Barton (who does have connections to Fairfax County).

Posted by: FfxGal | July 3, 2007 2:41 PM

I went to school in a town that had two high schools. Both were named after the town; the one on the eastern side of town was " Cranston East" and the one on the western side was "Cranston West". Somehow we all survived, and I still learned about all the presidents.

Posted by: collegeparkgal | July 3, 2007 3:21 PM

Marc,

I attended Teddy Roosevelt Jr. High (grades 7, 8 and 9) it was built in 1922 and is now a middle school. My High School was named after the town I grew up in. I live in Arlington, and my children when they are old enough will likely be attending Washington & Lee High School, named for GW and Robert E. Lee (I assume)

Posted by: dan | July 3, 2007 4:39 PM

Marc, what's the name of the PRIVATE school that your kids attends?

Posted by: Response, please | July 3, 2007 8:20 PM

I can understand why schools are named after local flora and fauna or local authors. When I tutored kids from Tyler Elementary School in DC, they told me that John Tyler was a slave-owning US President. As African Americans, it was clear that these students did not relate positively to this historical figure, who later served in the government of the Confederate States of America.

Posted by: Mike Licht | July 4, 2007 8:59 AM

It's obvious that many students are already attending Cannabis High.

Posted by: Tokin | July 4, 2007 1:17 PM

I went to Montgomery Blair High School and...ok, I still couldn't tell you who he was. (Postmaster general? Founder of Silver Spring? I don't know, there were a lot of Blairs.)

Posted by: h3 | July 5, 2007 9:17 AM

With the five year anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia tragedy, I am hopeful that Arlington County Public Schools will see fit to honor one of their graduates. David Brown was a graduate of Yorktown High School. He went on to complete his undergraduate degree at William and Mary and his medical degree at Eastern Virginia Medical School. He went on to become a Navy pilot, flight surgeon, and NASA astronaut. On February 3, 2003, he was aboard the shuttle Columbia that ended in tragedy.

It is my understanding that Arlington has a 5-year waiting period beyond an individual's death to name a school for the person. I am hopeful that on the 5-year anniversary of the Columbia tragedy, that the Arlington County School Board will show that they have "the right stuff" and name a school for David Brown or the entire Columbia crew. They were true American heros.

Posted by: Arlingtonian | July 5, 2007 1:10 PM

Burning Tree Elementary (biblical reference -- not acceptable by today's standards).
Thomas W. Pyle Jr. High School (who???).
Walt Whitman High School (Somehow I don't think a school named for a gay poet would fly today.)

And somehow, I got a real good edumacation.

By the way, H3, check out this link (from a BRITISH! website) for some info on Montgomery Blair: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USACWblair.htm

Posted by: Edumucated | July 5, 2007 1:28 PM

collegeparkgal: Nice to see a fellow Rhode Islander on here.

My hometown in RI had two high schools, three junior high schools, and around ten elementary schools.

The high schools and elementary schools were all named for School Department notables; the junior highs were named for local historical figures.

Posted by: South | July 5, 2007 3:51 PM

Hey, don't knock Robert Klein's rendition of our school song. I went to 80 with him, in fact he was only a JHS transfer from 94 in the seventh grade and so lost 6 places in the move, while I "graduated" from PS 80 to JHS 80, all in the same building. Our world collapsed, however, when the Bd. of Ed (as it was then called) changed the school's name to Mosholu Parkway Junior High School, quite a mouthful for little kids, but it was geographically correct.

Posted by: DavidH | July 6, 2007 10:52 AM

Ooops, despite using numbers for school names, math wasn't a strong teaching point (unlike naming schools after presidents to teach history).

Klein lost 14 places, not six, in the move. I graduated nevertheless.

Posted by: DavidH | July 6, 2007 11:00 AM

I'm waiting for the inaugration and grand opening of Marion Barry High.

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