South Orange–Maplewood School District plans to rename Jefferson School

Jefferson Elementary School

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education voted unanimously on Aug. 16 to adopt a resolution affirming the district’s commitment to renaming Jefferson Elementary School. Joining a growing list of school districts across the nation that are choosing to drop Thomas Jefferson as a namesake for their schools, the South Orange–Maplewood School District is looking to work with students and the larger community to choose a new name.

According to Resolution No. 4190, which passed on the consent agenda, “naming a school for a person is to honor that person and to hold them up as a role model for students,” but Jefferson School currently “bears the name of an enslaver committed to upholding the institution of slavery” and “the Board of Education will no longer hold up an enslaver as a role model for students of the South Orange–Maplewood School District.” Despite Jefferson having been a slave owner, his name adorns many schools and public buildings across the nation, as he is one of the United States’ Founding Fathers and he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

The resolution states that the district, after working with students and other stakeholders, needs to propose a new name to the board by June 30, 2022, so that the board can vote on adopting the name, to go into effect for the 2022-2023 school year.

The issue was first brought up a month earlier at the July 19 BOE meeting by First Vice President Shannon Cuttle, who said they were looking to “perhaps start a basic dialogue” on what the process of renaming Jefferson School might look like. 

“I know that there have been other community schools in other districts, not just around the country, but here surrounding us, in New Jersey and Essex County, that have taken on looking at renaming some of their schools for various reasons,” Cuttle said on July 19, citing West Orange School District’s 2016 renaming of Pleasantdale Elementary School to Kelly Elementary School in honor of Mark and Scott Kelly, the hometown-hero astronauts. 

Cuttle recommended looking to neighboring school districts that “have done some work as a board looking to rename schools that perhaps need an updated name change to currently reflect the community’s climate and culture, and choosing names that represent the community’s historic and current diversity and values.” According to Cuttle, some communities have created ad hoc committees to explore the issue.

Mainly, Cuttle wanted to gauge the response to their proposal, saying, “I just wanted to open up the conversation, since that seems very relevant.”

Second Vice President Erin Siders highlighted Princeton School District and its response to a similar issue.

“They had a middle school named after John Witherspoon, who was a slave owner, so what they decided to do was, they had the students at the middle school research potential names and come up with a list,” Siders said in July. Witherspoon — who was a president of Presbyterian College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton University — was a New Jersey delegate to the Second Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776; he also later signed the Articles of Confederation and supported ratifying the U.S. Constitution.

“So students came up with a list of about 12 names, a combination of person names and nonperson names. A suggestion was made that they look at a nonperson name as a potential name for the school,” Siders continued. “They had students and staff at that school polled. The name that they came up with, that polled highest, was Princeton Middle School. And then the board of education last month voted to approve the name change. So I think that’s a comparable example, since I think we collectively want to change the name of the school but we don’t have a name in mind. And it would be a great way to get the community involved, especially the students, because it’s their school.”

Board member Courtney Winkfield supported the idea of involving students, saying that renaming the school could be used as a teaching tool.

“I can’t imagine a more culturally relevant or engaging way to be able to get students to really dig into history, not only the history of the school that they attend of that name, but also to think about what’s happening nationally even around the country around monuments and icons and some of the debate going on around who we revere and how we handle history over time,” Winkfield said. “So I think it’s a really important conversation for us to have as a community, but I think it’s even more important for students to really grapple with this as we move forward.”

Board member Elissa Malespina, who was absent for the August vote, recommended at the July meeting that the district take a close look at its policies regarding naming and renaming, to determine how the district would name things moving forward.

“I believe Seton Hall had something similar like this happen in the past and they actually went through policy and sort of codified how in general they would be naming things from then on,” Malespina said.

While the board members seemed generally in favor of the name change, opinions varied on various online community forums. While many people applauded the decision to rename the school, others likened it to rewriting history and argued that it is immoral to judge men like Jefferson and Witherspoon by today’s mores. Still others argued that, while the name change is a positive step forward, it should not be prioritized over various initiatives to improve equity and integration, and to remove the achievement gap.

Nevertheless, only one resident attended the Aug. 16 BOE meeting, and she spoke in favor of the name change.

“I have two children in the district, one who will be beginning third grade at Jefferson Elementary next month. I’m addressing you tonight to support the effort to rename the elementary school. As a progressive community, this is yet another opportunity for all of us to practice the ‘yes and’ approach to improving our schools,” South Orange resident Sally Unsworth said at the meeting. “For example, are we committed to an anti-racist education experience for our children? Yes … and, we will address this through implementing the Amistad curriculum and much more, and giving our students the opportunity to explore a better role model for their school’s name that aligns with the values of today. 

“With a student body that represents a broad cross-section of youth, we know that to ignore history or to rewrite it to wash over uncomfortable truths is the wrong approach to education,” she continued. “As a child, one of the first things I learned about my father’s side of the family was that we were direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson. It wasn’t until I attended college and met another direct descendant that I had a conversation about Jefferson’s role in slavery in America. He was a deeply flawed historical figure. And, while no part of his contribution to the founding of the United States should be erased, no part of the entire truth of who he was, how he lived or who he harmed should be ignored. Let us use this opportunity to correct and reflect and give our students a voice in celebrating a more appropriate name for their school.”