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VIEWPOINTS: Why Austin ISD is reviewing 62 schools named since 1960s

As Austin school trustees move expeditiously to rebrand five schools stripped of names of Confederate leaders and soldiers, they also are revising school-naming policies to reflect the district’s core values, changing demographics and historical wrongs.

We welcome their actions, which are overdue. The names of schools should serve as an inspiration to students to achieve and a beacon to the broader community regarding the values associated with public education.

Confederate names have been an enduring insult to many Austin ISD parents, teachers, students and taxpayers, who are aware the Confederacy was founded on an immoral cause: to maintain the enslavement of black men, women and children in Texas and throughout the South. Time has marched on. Those names should have been shed decades ago.

COMMENTARY: Time is right to remove Confederate names at Austin ISD schools.

As early as this summer, six schools bearing Confederate names will have undergone name changes. The effort won’t stop there, however. Trustee Cindy Anderson told us that 62 schools that are at least 50 years old will undergo a review to determine whether their names are suitable for today’s campuses and align with district values that, thankfully, have evolved over a decade.

“We should have names our students and communities can look up to,” Anderson said.

Anderson and Trustee Geronimo Rodriguez are spearheading the rewrite of school-naming policies that will be applied to current campuses and new schools that open. They are aiming for guidelines that help the public understand why many school names might no longer be appropriate — or why the names of women should rise to the top for new schools. Along with that, they are working to upgrade online tools to guide the public through the process. They have examined policies of Dallas, Houston and some San Antonio districts.

Austin’s first school to be renamed because of its tie to the Confederacy was Robert E. Lee Elementary in west-central Austin, named to honor the well-known Confederate general and slaveowner. That was in 2016.

POLITIFACT: These two Texas heroes had ties to slavery.

The five schools awaiting new names are: the Allan facility, formerly Allan Elementary, named for John T. Allan, an officer in the Confederate Army; Reagan High, named for John H. Reagan, the Confederacy’s postmaster general; Eastside Memorial High at Johnston, named for Confederate Gen. Albert S. Johnston; Lanier High, named for Sidney Lanier, a noted poet who fought for the Confederacy; and Fulmore Middle School, named for Zachary Taylor Fulmore, a private in the Confederate army.

Austin School Superintendent Paul Cruz says the district is likely to move on two tracks: One is using the current process to rename the five schools, whose Confederate names were removed last month. Going forward, schools will come under a new system that simplifies the process, adds some checks and balances, generates public engagement and has a heavy emphasis on educating the community about the reasons for changing school names.

A change in the works currently will be set up by Cruz, who will appoint people to an advisory committee. Cruz wants a diverse committee made up of parents, teachers and representatives from organizations, such as the local Anti-Defamation League and Austin National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The group will focus on crafting criteria for renaming schools, but won’t come up with names, though it might help whittle down submissions of names from the public and individual schools by determining if they align with district values.

CONFEDERATE NAMES NIXED: Search is on for new Austin school names.

Proposed changes reflect a more pragmatic – and thoughtful – approach to a topic that has stirred controversy and emotions.

There is much tradition associated with school names, particularly among alumni who can be a key fundraising arm for individual campuses. Understandably, there is concern that traditions and connections to campuses can get lost in a renaming process. Those concerns are legitimate — but they can be managed when handled sensibly with the kind of research and planning trustees are doing.

For instance, Anderson says the board has asked for a spreadsheet of the district’s 130 schools that details their age, names, when they were named, who or what they were named after, and what contributions to the school or community are associated with the name. We would add that also should break out the gender, race and ethnicity of people whose names are on schools, and designate names that represent places or neighborhoods.

Anderson says and we agree that such research can go a long way in educating the public about why their schools carry the names they do. It can illustrate why, for instance, trustees might want to name more schools after women, people of color or neighborhoods. It also can help explain why the district should spend the estimated $77,000 associated with renaming schools.

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No one expects a new policy to eliminate all hard feelings from such decisions. It will be trustees who have the final say about names. Nonetheless, clearer guidelines would help people better understand why some names adopted half a century ago are so offensive today. A uniform application that spells out all that is needed for submitting names also would help the district steer clear of naming schools based on a popularity contest.

Lee Elementary would have been Donald Trump Elementary School if the district had gone with the most popular recommendation, said Roxanne Evans, a former school district official and member of the East Austin Coalition for Quality Education.

We have urged Cruz and company to preserve symbols, signs and other artifacts that are removed from schools to help people understand the past as well as the future. We are heartened by changes that — as Trustee Yasmin Wagner observed — are finally putting the district on “the right side of history.”

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