Fewer schools named for leaders

Tuesday, July 03
WASHINGTON — Schools are increasingly named after hills and brooks than after former presidents and founding fathers, according to a study released yesterday that warns that the trend reflects a decelerating appreciation for American civics.

The home state of Paul Revere, the Boston Tea Party and four presidents is no exception.

More than 42 percent of new schools in Massachusetts have been named for natural sights and geographic locations since 1988, an increase of 18 percent since 1947, according to the study by the Manhattan Institute.

At the same time, new schools carrying the names of people have dropped by almost one-third, to 43.7 percent. Presidents, founding fathers and community leaders have all seen their chances at namesake diminish.

School leaders dismiss the notion that a school's name could reflect an eroding interest in American history and civics.

But the study's author, Jay Greene, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, writes, "This shift from naming schools after people worthy of emulation to naming schools after hills, trees or animals raises questions about the civic mission of public education and the role that school names play in that civic mission."

Greene studied school names in seven states, accounting for about 20 percent of the nation's students. He said in an interview that Massachusetts' declining population and slower school construction has minimized the impact compared with other states, but reinforces the trend.

In Florida, five schools honor George Washington — and 11 are named after manatees.

In Arizona, schools built in the past 20 years were almost 50 times as likely to be named after a cactus than after a U.S. president, according to the report. And, nationally, the chance that a school will be named after a president has plummeted from 9 percent to 1 percent since 1988.

"That's not Lowell," School Superintendent Karla Brooks Baehr said of the report's findings.

Of the 23 public schools in Lowell, 21 are named after people, including George Washington and Old Abe.

The only schools not named for leaders are Lowell High School and Pawtucketville Memorial — named for an area steeped in American Indian and Revolutionary War history.

"I think there's an opportunity for youngsters to learn about a wide range of civic contributions that their school's namesake has made," Brooks Baehr said.

Added Richard Howe Sr., who served on the School Board for 40 years: "The naming of schools is kind of insignificant, compared to what's going on in the schools."

Greene argues that a school's name can provide the opportunity to discuss American history and reinforce students' learning.

He also says that many school boards shrink from the politically tenuous task of naming their school after prominent figures with controversial pasts. He notes that New Orleans banned namesakes who owned slaves — requiring a new name for one school that honored George Washington.

"The unwillingness of school boards to take stands when naming schools may indicate a reluctance to take the stands necessary to teach civics effectively," Greene says in the report.

Fitchburg Superintendent Andre Ravenelle says that a school's name has no impact on its curriculum. But he and other school leaders acknowledged that naming a facility can be sensitive. The city's new high school was named about six years ago, before he took over the district.

"The safest thing is to name it Fitchburg High School, because as soon as you do something different than that, you're going to have people come down on different sides of the argument," he said.

Many communities don't have any schools named after breezes, brooks or birds. But some do.

Leominster named its new middle school Sky View — the creation of a seventh-grader taken by the school's hilltop location. A voting process eliminated other proposed names, including that of perhaps the state's eminent figure.

"Somebody brought up Kennedy again," said Don Lacharite, the school's former principal. "But it didn't last very long. There was a movement to move away from that."

The school is on Kennedy Way.

There's Ashburnham's Overlook Middle School and Pepperell's Varnum Brook Elementary School.

There's Lunenburg's Turkey Hill Middle School and Tyngsboro's Heath Brook Elementary School.

Yet for all those names of nature, Massachusetts has more schools named after people that kids can try to emulate. There are 15 schools in the state named Lincoln and 16 honoring JFK.

"What's important is the teacher standing in front of a desk," said Ravenelle. "Were it as easy as how we name our schools, we'd all be analyzing which names have the best achievement and renaming all of our schools," he added. "It should be that easy."


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