The Falls Church City School Board voted Tuesday night (April 27) to rename two of its schools, effective July.
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School will now be called Oak Street Elementary School — a name it bore before it took the third U.S. president’s — and George Mason High School will be Meridian High School.
The vote concluded a lengthy process that involved public comments, surveys, and work by two renaming committees to generate new monikers for the schools in place of the names of white Founding Fathers who enslaved Africans. The approval came despite recent opposition from a group of high-profile citizens, including a former mayor and two former vice mayors.
“This has been a long and, at times challenging, process, but I do think we’re moving onto a newer and brighter time in Falls Church,” Board Chair Shannon Litton said.
Choosing the elementary school’s new name came easily. Each board member had the same top two picks — Oak Street and Tripps Run, in reference to a nearby creek.
Those who favored Oak Street argued, among other points, that naming the school after the creek is only one step removed naming it after a person, specifically the creek’s historical namesake, Silas Tripp, and that the name’s grammar and spelling could confuse students.
“If the run was not named after a person, I’d be in support of Tripps Run,” Vice Chair Laura Downs said. “I do have some concerns that, in the end, the body of water was named after a person, and we don’t want to find ourselves here years from now because of something someone found.”
For the high school, however, the board was split between Meridian and West Falls Church or West End before ultimately voting 5-2 for Meridian after many awkward pauses. A few members lamented the board-imposed rule of disqualifying the names of people dead fewer than 10 years, saying Ruth Bader Ginsburg would make a fine name.
Meridian’s proponents highlighted the fact that it had been proposed by a teacher, Meridian Street‘s history as a boundary for the original District of Columbia, and its global connotation, which they argued would be fitting for a school that offers the International Baccalaureate curriculum.
As a bonus, they added, “M” paraphernalia from the former Mason name will not be obsolete.
Opponents dismissed the bonus, criticized the name as generic, and worried that it would be unfamiliar to graduates, requiring frequent explanations of its ties to local history.
Elisabeth Snyder, the student representative to the board, said she could not find a clear frontrunner based on conversations with students and teachers. She shared that many had expressed support for Meridian because of “how it connects to IB and inclusiveness,” while acknowledging that the Falls Church association isn’t instantly apparent.
“If someone mentioned ‘Meridian’ before this discussion, no one would’ve seen a connection, but that doesn’t exclude from creating a new meaning,” Snyder said. “A lot of students have liked the derivatives of West End and West Falls Church. It’s not the idealistic name folks were looking for, but it does the job.”
The board’s newest interim member, Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation Founder and President Edwin B. Henderson II, put forward Tinner Hill High School, saying it embodies the board’s ideals and the spirit behind the renaming process.
The name refers to Charles and Mary Tinner, who established a quarry in the area, and their descendent Joseph, who fought for civil rights and helped found the first rural branch of the NAACP.
Board member Phil Reitinger vetoed Tinner Hill because it is geographically removed from the high school, but he suggested Barbara Rose Johns, who protested segregated schools, as an alternate civil rights figure to highlight.
Ultimately, Reitinger indicated a preference for West Falls Church High School or a similar derivative, such as West End. The other interim board member, Sonia Ruiz-Bolaños, said idealistic names would feel performative unless the school took education about racism, justice, and equity seriously.
“I would love to have a name that raises everyone up and inspires everyone and everybody,” she said. “But those passionate names have pitfalls somewhere down the road.”
Superintendent Peter Noonan affirmed the school’s commitment to those goals and said the curriculum will “tell the full story of Falls Church at the high school through a variety of means.”
After the vote, Noonan also suggested a slogan: “Where the world comes together.”
“While the name may not be approved by everybody, I do see it as an opportunity for everyone to come together,” he said.