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Education

More Than A Quarter Of New Orleans Public School Buildings Set To Be Renamed Despite Community Pushback

McDonogh35
Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
McDonogh 35 Senior High School in Gentilly. March 7, 2021.

A local school board policy opposing facilities honoring slave owners, confederate officials and segregation supporters passed last summer with little resistance. Now, some argue it lacks sufficient nuance.

More than a quarter of New Orleans public school sites violate the board’s policy, though it was initially unclear as to whether they would all be renamed.

Board members have the authority to change building names, but school names are decided by charter operators. As a result, mismatches have become increasingly common since the city transitioned to an all-charter system.

In an interview with New Orleans Public Radio last month, Justin McCorkle, the district’s director of community relations, said “community context” would be key to the renaming process, suggesting some buildings might be allowed to keep their names.

That no longer appears to be the case. Board members voted 6-1 last week to advance the full list of sites for renaming.

Taslin Alfonzo, a spokesperson for the district, said in an email that the next step is for the buildings to be matched with new name recommendations submitted by the community and vetted by the renaming committee.

In the event more than three names are submitted for a facility, the committee will narrow the list before presenting them to the school board for a vote. Alfonzo said this process will likely be completed by early summer.

Member Katie Baudouin argued the board had no choice but to advance the list based on the preapproved policy. In order to amend the list, which currently includes 21 sites, Baudouin said the board would first need to amend the renaming policy.

Board member Carlos Zervigon, who cast the lone dissenting vote, argued the vote should have been pushed back to account for the extended public comment period, which runs through the end of this month.

Last week’s vote set the stage for Tuesday’s public hearing when alumni from two high schools, McDonogh 35 Senior High School and Benjamin Franklin High School, expressed disappointment with how the renaming process had been handled so far.

“I speak as an alumnus when I say I do not wish for this renaming initiative to go forward,” Wanda Romain, a graduate of McDonogh 35, said.

“There are board members who are not certain as to what is the true nature of this process,” she said.

Conversations concerning the difficulty of renaming schools have been largely framed around McDonogh 35, a school named for a slave owner and public education benefactor but better known as an institution that has promoted Black excellence.

When McDonogh 35 opened its doors more than 100 years ago, it was the city’s first high school for Black students. Since then it has produced generations of notable alumni and maintained a prestigious academic reputation, according to the school’s alumni association.

“Our success has in the past, the present, and foreseeably in the future come from individuals that are deep, strong, and mighty borne of a pride that far outshines the name of the school,” the association wrote in a letter addressed the district’s renaming committee.

“Changing McDonogh 35 would not be a progressive thing to do nor will it erase the sordid history of the past. What it will do, is slowly erase the hard work and efforts graduates put in to make the name and thought of the school as revered as it is.”

The school’s student government association also supports maintaining the school’s name and sent an additional letter of support to the school board, according to a press release.

Individual graduates of Lusher Charter School and Benjamin Franklin High School have also made the case to preserve the schools’ names, but have faced pushback from students, parents and teachers.

Robert Mills Lusher was a Confederate tax collector who actively worked to keep schools segregated and died an avowed white supremacist. Benjamin Franklin was a slave owner, but later freed became an outspoken abolitionist.

Tim Brechtel, a Benjamin Franklin graduate, argued Thursday night that the board had failed to consider the founding father’s full legacy.

“If you read the rest of his biography, it reads like someone who redeemed himself to become one of the biggest champions against slavery that our country had at the time,” Brechtel said.

Fellow Franklin graduate Mark Orzech also spoke in support of maintaining the school’s name.

“This is at a time 70 years before the civil war and despite that, [Franklin] had the bravery to go against so many of his misguided colleagues and argue forcefully and openly against [the abomination of slavery],” Orzech said.

Patrick Widhalm, Benjamin Franklin’s head of school, said in an email that he recognizes the board’s authority to rename district facilities and plans to work with the Franklin’s governing board and school community to determine whether the program’s name should also be changed.

Speakers also used Thursday’s meeting to volunteer new name suggestions, including Leah Metoyer McKenna and Elliot “Doc” Willard.

Dwight McKenna, the city’s coroner, spoke in support of naming a school after his mother. The George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art on Carondelet Street already bears her name.

“She devoted her entire life to educating young children in the city of New Orleans, particularly in the area of the 7th Ward, where we lived our entire lives,” McKenna said. “It is my understanding she was the first principal to have an integrated staff and I think if you look at her record and all of her accomplishments through her educational career … no person is more deserving of having the school named after her than my mother.”

His perspective was echoed by more than a half a dozen speakers, several of whom identified themselves as members of McDonogh 42’s own renaming committee. Members said they had come to a clear consensus that the school should be renamed for McKenna.

An even greater number of speakers voiced support for a school to be named after Willard, who served as an Orleans Parish School Board member from 1998 to 2004. Before that he was principal of St. Augustine High School and Booker T. Washington High School.

Justin Smart, a 1979 graduate of Booker T. Washington, described “Doc” Willard, as “a first class gentleman.”

“What I loved about Doc is that he made everybody feel special, no matter what level you came from, no matter what neighborhood you live in,” Smart said. “I have cerebral palsy and he would always make me feel comfortable.”

The district is requesting “community suggestions and comments on name recommendations” through April 30 and plans to update its renaming initiative website page with the final list of name recommendations by May 3.

At that point the community is “welcome to give further feedback on the final list of names and what buildings they should be aligned with,” Alfonzo said in an email.

A public meeting to collect further feedback on the final list of name recommendations is scheduled for May 5.

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