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. Read More
The Falls Church City School Board will hear suggested new monikers for two schools during its meeting tonight (Tuesday).
Two committees tasked with renaming George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School have narrowed down hundreds of names to their top five, which were submitted to the school board on Friday (April 9).
The school board voted last December to move forward with a renaming process after hearing from members of the public on both sides of the issue.
“I’m in support of changing the names of our elementary and high schools, because if one student feels uncomfortable walking into a building named for a person who did not respect the dignity of another human being, that’s one too many,” School Board Member Lawrence Webb said in December.
According to the committee’s final report, the top five contenders for the high school are:
- Meridian High School
- Metropolitan High School
- Metro View High School
- Tinner Hill High School
- West End High School
Committee members said they considered names that reference places, ideas, or values, as well as “M” names and those with local connections or historical significance. It started with nearly 280 suggested names.
One name with some support that did not make the cut was Falls Church City High School. Falls Church High School already exists in the Fairfax County Public Schools system, though some recent letters to Falls Church News-Press indicate people hold a variety of opinions on which jurisdiction has a real claim to the name.
Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson Elementary School could be renamed:
- Mattie Gundry Elementary School
- Oak Street Elementary Schoo
- The Little City Elementary School
- Tripps Run Elementary School
- Truth and Justice Elementary School
The elementary school was originally a Fairfax County school named Oak Street School. When FCCPS became an independent school division, the name stayed, but when the city’s Jefferson Institute was demolished, the school board voted to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s name.
Tinner Hill and Mattie Gundry are the only suggestions with ties to people, which the committees flagged. FCCPS policy allows facilities to bear the names of people who have been dead at least 10 years, but some committee members say that they — or the people they represent — want to avoid possibly opening the school community up to controversy in the future.
Tinner Hill 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.
“The committee raised concerns that selecting this name may be performative if not coupled with earnest work towards building equity in our schools and our community,” the report said. “Given the historical mistreatment of the Tinner Hill community, it is imperative that this name be considered as one part of a plan that will emphasize the value and respect due to the city’s African-American residents.”
The committee said it has spoken with members of the Tinner family who support the name for consideration.
“The Tinner Family expressed their gratitude and said that it is an honor that the Falls Church City community suggested the name of their family and their historic community represent the FCCPS high school,” the report said.
Gundry, meanwhile, was an educator who opened The Virginia Training School in 1899, making it the only school that served students with disabilities in the South. Some committee members expressed concern that future generations could determine that her school’s treatment of people with disabilities may not rise to modern standards.
Input on the monicker was also mixed because of a general disinterest in renaming the school after a different person.
“Feedback on this name was that we should avoid naming the school after a person,” the report said. “This name did not rank highly when students from three classrooms were polled.”
Full justifications and concerns for each name can be found in the reports.
The Falls Church City School Board unanimously voted on Tuesday (Dec. 8) to rename both George Mason High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary School.
The decision came after months of debate that involved two separate public hearings and an independently conducted survey that garnered more than 3,000 responses.
Emphasizing the care they took to consider different perspectives, the seven school board members ultimately agreed that Falls Church City Public Schools should adopt new monikers for its elementary and high schools in recognition of its goal to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for all.
“I’m in support of changing the names of our elementary and high schools, because if one student feels uncomfortable walking into a building named for a person who did not respect the dignity of another human being, that’s one too many,” School Board Member Lawrence Webb said.
The school board launched an effort to consider whether to rename Mason and Jefferson on June 30 after some community members started advocating for the changes in response to the protests against racial injustice and police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder in May.
During two hour-long public hearings in October, community members weighed Mason and Jefferson’s legacies as key figures in the formation of the U.S. against the pain they inflicted as slaveholders. Falls Church’s history of excluding Black people, the impending completion of a new George Mason High School campus, and the cost of renaming the schools also came up.
FCCPS estimates that renaming Mason would cost $96,760 and renaming Jefferson would cost $13,500. The school system also spent $8,500 to hire the consultant K-12 Insight to administer a public survey on the topic.
Presented to the school board on Nov. 17, the survey of students, staff, parents, and the general community found that 56% of respondents preferred to maintain the status quo, while 26% supported a name change for Mason and 23% supported one for Jefferson.
School Board Chair Greg Anderson noted that the survey was just one avenue used to solicit public feedback.
“The survey wasn’t a referendum or a generalizable, statistical, random sample of public opinion,” Anderson said. “…The survey was informative, but not decisive on its own and should be viewed as information.”
Now that the name changes have been approved, FCCPS Superintendent Peter Noonan will be accepting nominations for advisory study committees that will recommend new names to the school board. The board will announce the timeline for that process at an upcoming meeting, FCCPS says.
Anderson said the school board should continue to address inequity in education by reviewing FCCPS’s curriculum, hiring practices, and policies around diversity and discrimination. He also suggested developing a public space to educate people about Mason and Jefferson as well as the City of Falls Church’s history.
“Honestly, I’m not sure I know what this all looks like, but I think it’s an idea worth considering,” Anderson said.
Photo courtesy FCCPS