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Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools pursue name changes

Schools look to leave problematic namesakes behind in exchange for new paths forward

<p>The Naming of Facilities Committee said they prioritized renaming Venable and Clark because they are the oldest of the schools and their names no longer represent the system’s ideals.</p>

The Naming of Facilities Committee said they prioritized renaming Venable and Clark because they are the oldest of the schools and their names no longer represent the system’s ideals.

The Charlottesville School Board recently finalized their decisions to formally rename Clark Elementary School and Venable Elementary School to Trailblazers Elementary School and Summit Elementary, respectively. The announcement follows a long debate over the outgoing names, which honor historical figures with racist histories. 

Venable’s name currently refers to a Confederate office who served as an aid to Robert E. Lee, and will become Trailblazers Elementary School, honoring the Charlottesville 12 who contributed to desegregation. Clark, currently named after a general who supported colonial expansion into Indigenous lands, will be renamed Summit Elementary, which the Board says reflects their intention for the student body to identify as a “gathering of leaders.” 

The Charlottesville City Schools Naming of Facilities Committee asked students in the third and fourth grade to help with brainstorming new names for the schools. The students were then allowed to vote in the process, ultimately selecting Trailblazers for Venable and Friendship for Clark. Due to a close outcome, Friendship was later exchanged for Summit following more community input and a vote.

Beth Baptist, Charlottesville school board member and member of the Naming of Facilities Committee, said the committee struggled to make progress with the effort to rename public schools due to COVID-19. As a result, they prioritized renaming Venable and Clark because they are the oldest of the schools and their names no longer represent the system’s ideals.

“Parts of our society have been complacent about how names of buildings or streets affect certain segments of the population,” Baptist said. “We need to think about the values. And that's what we've tried to do with the naming of the schools, [thinking about] the values of our school division and make sure that we're not perpetuating names that don't match our values.” 

Some members of the Charlottesville and Albemarle County community disagree with the efforts to change schools’ names, Baptist said, and see the debates as unnecessarily splitting hairs. 

“Let’s keep changing the goalpost until we get what we want,” a community member commented on Facebook. “Never in a million years would I have thought this is what the CCS board would be debating.”

Some of those opposed believe that this project erases history. Baptist said that others may be unsatisfied with the new names because they think that the schools should place more focus on the educational aspect of the name’s background.

“These names have been in place for a long time, and many people don't know the origin of the names, so I think some of it is just the comfort of having it the way it's been, and not seeing the need to change it,” Baptist said. 

The process to officially change the names of Venable and Clark will take place at some point in the next two academic years. Now that Venable and Clark have official name changes scheduled, the committee on the Board will also consider renaming other schools, such as Johnson and Burnley-Moran Elementary. The plan is to first prioritize the older elementary schools, then middle and high schools. 

The Albemarle County School Board is also pursuing its own initiative to evaluate problematic namesakes — in 2018, the Albemarle County School Board moved to encourage the superintendent to review school names. Now, the board is moving forward with this goal for a number of schools. 

Karen Waters, ACPS director of community education, is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the changes, in collaboration with the school’s staff. Following the name changes, Waters will work with staff at the various schools to manage the logistics. She hopes to create visible change within the upcoming years.

“It is gratifying that our society is in a place where we can reassess to whom we bestow these honors, as well as who is negatively impacted by derogatory place names, and that we can celebrate the plurality of our nation,” Waters said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “We teach our children that words are important, and representation matters, so we must walk the talk.”

Meriwether Lewis Elementary — named after famous explorer Meriwether Lewis — will be changed to Ivy Elementary School following an unanimous decision from the ACPS Board. Meriweather Lewis also owned land in Charlottesville where dozens of enslaved people lived and had a history of exploiting Black labor. 

“It is a healthy thing to have the opportunity to come together and gain a greater understanding of the people the place names actually represent, and to weigh them in the context of our contemporary values,” Waters said.