In this altered landscape, a name is more than just a name; it is a symbol of the of community’s collective memory. And when it comes to schools, a name can become a politically charged flash point, pitting an ad man’s marketing savvy against a community’s heritage.
Today, new charter schools are replacing more than the old, brick and mortar school buildings wrecked by the storm. New schools trumpet new missions, colors, songs, mascots and names. Where some are skeptical about re-branding what was familiar and sentimental, others welcome scrapping the failing, decrepit institutions for something completely new.
In a city that is focused on rebuilding and reinventing, many are forging forward rather than looking back. New school names like “Success”, “Esperanza”, and “ARISE” may have no connection to the rich, cultural heritage of New Orleans. But they promise hope for children who have experienced tremendous loss.
Sean Gallagher, principal of the brand new Akili Academy, pondered the name choice for a long time, using “Charter X” as a placeholder until he knew where his school would be housed.
“I kept insisting I wanted it to be related to the neighborhood where the school would be located and attach significance there,” Gallagher said. But it soon became obvious that he would not know for at least another year which neighborhood his school would inhabit. So a member of his school development team pitched the Swahili word “Akili,” meaning knowledge and wisdom.
“I just thought what a cool thing to call a school. It pops. It’s good for marketing,” said Gallagher. “You can see on our signs, it’s a really cool looking word.” Business people have stopped to tell him that his school is “one of the best branded businesses in the city right now,” Gallagher said.
Niloy Gangopadhyay and St. Claire Adriaan are expected to open a new charter school in the Fall of 2009 on the grounds of of Albert Wicker Elementary, a poorly performing school that is slowly being phased out by the state. Established in 1973, the school was named after a New Orleans African-American education reformer and civil rights activist. Gangopadhyay and St. Claire wanted to call their new school Success Preparatory Academy, a bold name with an unambiguous message.
However, many residents who had ties with the 40-year-old Wicker Elementary were offended that the name Wicker would be so easily tossed out and forgotten. Gangopadhyay and Adriaan—originally from California and South Africa, respectively—found themselves in an unexpected battle. It was one that ended with a compromise: Success Preparatory Academy at Wicker, with “at Wicker” appearing in small letters on some, but not all, of the school’s logos.
“In changing the name, you’re removing history,” said Sabrina Mays Montana, executive director of Orleans Public Education Network.
Mays said she believes it is important for students to know about the prominent figures old public schools honored. She described new charter leaders, usually non-natives, as “insensitive” to tradition and the consequences new names have on communities.
Many of the lost New Orleans’ school names had strong ties with the communities that surrounded them. They often celebrated celebrated local figures, such as Frances Gaudet, a New Orleans educator and juvenile prison reform activist. After Katrina, Gaudet Elementary was closed and replaced with Lake Forest Elementary Charter School. The new school name pays homage to the neighborhood, but not to Gaudet, a school that had been around for forty years. Other school namesakes, like Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’ famous jazz trumpeter, and Oretha Castle Haley, a local civil rights activist, have not been re-adopted by charter schools.
When Principal Duke Bradley was faced with naming his new charter school, he ended up trading one black historical figure’s name for another. Lost will be George Washington Carver Elementary, named after the Civil War-era scientist and educator. Bradley’s new school is called Benjamin E. Mays Preparatory Academy, after Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor who was the president of Morehouse College. Morehouse is also Bradley’s alma mater.
Bradley says he’s not trying to wipe George Washington Carver, the man, out of local memory, or Carver, the school, off the map. “We’re not trying to undermine the legacy of Carver at all,” he said, referring to the collection of Carver schools that have been mainstays in the Ninth Ward for decades. “In fact, we publicly refer to our school as Mays Prep at Carver.”
But he is trying to change the school’s image along with its academic performance. Bradley conceded that adding “Preparatory” to the name is intended to make it sound like a private school — a little tweak of language that he hopes will attract parents.
“It signals something esteemed, I think,” he said. “I hope.”
Graphic by Alexandra Fenwick
Filed Under: New Orleans in Depth
About the Author: Alexandra Fenwick is a multimedia journalist who has worked as a reporter in daily newspapers in New Jersey and Connecticut for four years, including one year as an education reporter. She grew up on the Jersey shore, split her high school career between public school and private boarding school and later studied writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She had a happy childhood, rode her bike everywhere and rarely got detention. She is trying to replicate that experience as an adult. Her byline has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Stamford Advocate, the Tribeca Tribune and Condé Nast's Portfolio.com. She graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in May 2009 and is currently an associate editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.