The Orleans Parish School Board is currently examining its policy prohibiting the renaming of schools, according to a statement released Monday by School Board President Ethan Ashley.
Since 2015, all school names have been considered permanent under Policy FDC, which says, “In no instance shall the existing school facility name be removed.”
When the policy passed, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said it would lend stability to the city’s charter school system, where new schools frequently open and close, moving in and out of pre-existing buildings.
But now, as a wave of racial reckoning sweeps the country, the policy stands in the way of efforts to rename buildings honoring individuals with ties to slavery and racism.
At least one charter school operator has asked that the policy be amended to allow them to rename a school, while other schools are reportedly looking into the process as well.
In the statement, Ashley said OPSB and NOLA Public Schools are “actively reviewing” the policy and are prepared to meet “the call for change” with “supportive action.”
“We want our schools to be welcoming, inclusive, and inspiring environments for our students each day,” Ashley said in the statement. “A key part of that is ensuring that the names of our schools and the people that we honor through naming are reflective of the values of our district.”
The board plans to work with school communities to “identify new options for names that better represent our values,” which they will then present at their July board meeting.
Ashley added that beyond name changes, the board is committed to providing students with “safe, anti-racist and equitable school settings.” Earlier this month, the board voted to hire an outside consultant to assess disparities by race and develop a district-wide equity plan.
While Monday’s statement said that some NOLA-PS schools “currently carry names associated with the painful legacy of racism and discrimination,” it did not name specific buildings.
New Orleans’ first big renaming effort was 30 years ago
Thanks to a strong push by activists in the 1990s, few New Orleans schools are still named after Confederate leaders, slave-owners or white-supremacists.
In December 1992, the Orleans Parish School Board adopted a policy that prohibited school names from honoring “former slave owners or others who did not respect equal opportunity for all.”
Over the next five years, at least 20 schools changed their names. In many cases, the schools’ new names honored the accomplishments of African Americans.
A school named after Robert E. Lee, was renamed for Ronald McNair, a Black astronaut who was killed when the Challenger space shuttle exploded in 1986.
In 1997, the nation’s first president was held accountable for his slave holdings, when George Washington’s name was replaced with that of Dr. Charles Richard Drew — a Black surgeon known for developing methods to preserve blood plasma and for protesting the United States Army’s practice of segregating donated blood by race.
But not all of the names changed
Today there are still two schools named for slave-owner and public education benefactor John McDonogh, and several more schools are housed on campuses bearing his name.
Earlier this month, protesters removed a bust of McDonogh from Duncan Plaza and threw it in the Mississippi River.
On Monday, InspireNOLA, a charter group, sent a letter to the NOLA-PS Property Committee asking the board to change its school renaming policy.
InspireNOLA operates seven New Orleans schools, including both remaining McDonogh Schools.
“Public schools have a unique mandate to ensure that their curriculums, programming, and cultural competence reflect that of the people and communities they serve,” InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely wrote. “In the current political climate, our schools have an opportunity to be responsive to the will of their constituents.”
McKneely requested that the board amend Policy FDC and grant the charter authority to form a “community-based exploratory committee” to rename McDonogh 42. Once a new name is selected, McKneely asks that the board honor their decision.
But the letter makes no mention of the charter’s other McDonogh school. McDonogh 35 first opened in 1917 and was the first New Orleans high school to teach Black students. Over the years, it has established a reputation for academic excellence and produced generations of proud alums. New Orleans Public Radio contacted the charter asking if they are also considering renaming McDonogh 35, but the school had not responded at the time of publishing. <<I emailed the charter asking if they were also considering McDonogh 35, but they have not yet responded.>>
Walter C. Stern, a New Orleans native and an assistant professor of educational policy studies and history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he understands why there may not be a similar push to change the historically Black high school’s name.
“With a school like McDonough 35, the African-Americans who have made that school what it is have given that name meaning,” Stern said. “While [the name is] tied to John McDonough and his bequest, there’s huge significance far, far beyond that. It sort of shows how history is malleable and how people do have power to chart a new course.”
Stern is the author of Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, which analyzes the ways in which McDonogh education funds were used to advance systemic racism and how Black New Orleanians fought back.
Another school exploring a name change is Lusher Charter School.
According to data gathered by Education Week, Louisiana currently has 13 Confederate named schools. Lusher, named after Robert Mills Lusher, is the only one in New Orleans.
Lusher Charter CEO Kathy Riedlinger announced last week that she will begin the process of considering a name change after thousands of people signed multiple online petitions demanding the more than 100-year old school be renamed.
Lusher was a Confederate tax collector and a white supremacist who fought desegregation. He also served as a Louisiana schools superintendent.
“I am conferring with the Lusher board and formulating a process in accordance with NOLA-PS policy to consider changing the name of the school,” Riedlinger wrote in a statement last week. “We are listening to our school community and will be communicating soon on what this process will look like.”
Lusher is under fire for more than just its name. One of the city’s few A-rated schools, it maintains a majority white student body despite the fact that NOLA-PS is majority Black.
Through an Instagram account, some allege that the school creates an inhospitable environment for students of color.
The account, called the Lusher Renaming Committee, has posted dozens of anonymous testimonials allegedly from Lusher students, parents and alumni. Many of the posts describe racist incidents and the administration’s failure to intervene.
On July 4, Lusher students will hold a Black Students Matter march to “bring awareness to the racial biases and discrimination within the Lusher Charter School community.”
In a letter to the Lusher community, Riedlinger described the school’s efforts to ensure diversity and inclusivity and said they are examining how to increase the school’s racial and academic diversity.
Lusher will also work with Louisiana State University to develop “immediate action steps regarding current events surrounding race and equity,” according to the letter. LSU will support Lusher in developing a “long-term plan” to guide faculty and administrators throughout the year.