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How important is a school name that reflects its community?

Students use computers at Key Learning Community in 2014.
Students use computers at Key Learning Community in 2014.
Scott Elliott

Indianapolis Public Schools will consider taking a step back in time this week when it picks a new name for one of its schools.

Should IPS be looking to the future instead of the past when it renames Key Learning Community?

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is suggesting the school be called Edison School for the Arts, in honor of turn-of-the-century inventor Thomas Edison. That would put another long-dead white man’s name on an IPS school.

Edison, Ferebee said, was the name suggested by the families and staff who will be moving into the building in the fall. Thomas Edison was the historical name for the school before it became Key, and it is still emblazoned on the side of the building.

But for decades, the district’s demographic makeup has been shifting so that a strong majority of students are now black (49 percent) and Hispanic (25 percent). Despite that still ongoing trend toward a more diverse student body, the district’s schools — many of which opened decades ago — are nearly all named for white historical figures.

Out of the 47 IPS schools named for people, 35 are named for white men, most of whom were historically important well back into the last century or earlier. No schools are named for Hispanics and only five are named for black men. Just seven schools are named for women, none of whom were black or Hispanic. (There were more schools named for black historical figures in the past, but some closed over the past 50 years as school enrollment dropped.)

Key is closing at the end of the school year, to be replaced next summer with an arts magnet school at its White River Parkway location, just West of downtown. The district wants the redesigned school to have a new name.

Ferebee said that the Edison School for the Arts name recalls the history of the school and its new use as an art magnet. Edison, an Ohio native, invented the light bulb while living in New Jersey and died in 1931.

“I’m a history guy when it comes to stuff like that, so I think there’s value in maintaining history,” Ferebee said. “If we were to build a new school, I think that’s a great opportunity to potentially identify somebody in history or whose made a significant contribution to the city and the community.”

Indianapolis certainly has famous minority figures that schools could be named for.

Basketball great Oscar Robertson, for example, helped break racial barriers in the city when he led Crispus Attucks High School to the first state championship for a team with an all-black lineup. Even more recent ground-breakers like 40-year state representative Bill Crawford or radio host Amos Brown, both of whom died last year, are examples of others who could be considered.

Board member Gayle Cosby said that she would like to see more schools named after minority figures, and she would be open to renaming schools if the communities they serve are interested.

“Anytime we can educate our students on role models that are like them, then that’s a powerful modeling experience for them,” Cosby said.

Under Ferebee’s leadership, school names have taken on renewed importance in IPS. He has pushed, for instance, for schools to embrace their names, like Mary Nicholson Elementary School, rather than their numbers, such as School 70.

“We have received feedback that the reference to schools exclusively as numbers is frustrating, lacks dignity, and does not respect the pride our students, families, and staff have in their school communities,” Ferebee’s assistant, Joe Gramelspacher, wrote in an email to reporters in June. “Given this feedback, district leadership is committed to referring to schools first by name and only secondarily by number.”

It’s actually School 70 that is relocating to the former Key building and where most of the kids for the new arts school are expected to come from. That school has a strong majority of black and Hispanic students: 71 percent are black and 15 percent are Hispanic.

Mark Russell, director of education, family services, and housing for the Indianapolis Urban League, said that “schools should reflect the culture of the students that they serve.” Even so, he said, he doesn’t see school names as a high priority, as long as the students who attend are learning.

“The work that we’ve done around racial equity and cultural awareness is the meat and potatoes of what should be happening with students around our various cultures,” Ferebee said, expressing a similar view.

He said he’s not focused on renaming schools at this point, but “it’s a conversation for down the road.”

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan also said she would be open to renaming schools if the community is interested, but she felt moving the arts program is not a significant enough change to justify changing the name. In Sullivan’s view, a more natural time to rename a building would be when the district does significant renovations or builds a new school.

“I would like to see more recognition of important African Americans and important Latinos in our schools,” she said. “It sends a message to our students. I don’t think, however, that you necessarily rename all of history to the current moment.”

School board member Kelly Bentley said the proposed name, and process for choosing it made sense.

“I think history matters,” Bentley said. “Our schools were named for very specific reasons, and I think we ought to honor some of that.”

The board plans a vote on the proposed name change at its action meeting on Thursday.

Namesakes for Indianapolis Public Schools

In all, 46 school buildings still in operation as schools bear the names of historical figures. Who are these people? Here’s a short description:

Carl Wilde

A lawyer and IPS school board member in the 1930s.

Paul I. Miller

An IPS school administrator in the mid-20th century.

Theodore Potter

A physician and advocate for schools.

Wendell Phillips

A Boston lawyer, he was an advocate for the abolition of slavery, Native American rights, women’s rights and organized labor in the 1800s. He died in 1884.

Washington Irving

A pioneering American writer in New York City in the early 1800s.

Crispus Attucks

A man of African decent, he is known as the first casualty of the American Revolutionary War, killed during the Boston Massacre by British soldiers along with four other men in 1770.

William Bell

High school principal in Indianapolis in the 1860s who went on to be superintendent in Richmond.

Charity Dye

An Indianapolis teacher beginning in the 1870s. She was also an author, lecturer and civic leader.

Francis W. Parker

A pioneer in progressive education in Boston in the 1880s who went on to found a school that became the University of Chicago.

William Penn

An immigrant from England to America in the 1860s who founded a province that became the state of Pennsylvania.

Jonathan Jennings

The first governor of Indiana, who served from 1816 to 1822.

Meredith Nicholson

An Indianapolis newsman who became a best selling author in the early 20th century.

Lew Wallace

An Indiana native and lawyer who was a general in the union army during the Civil War.

James Whitcomb Riley

A newspaper journalist who became a renowned poet beginning in the 1870s.

George W. Julian

Represented Indiana in the U.S. Congress in the mid-1800s, he opposed slavery and was an unsuccessful candidate for U.S. vice president.

Thomas D. Gregg

An Indianapolis teacher in the early 1800s.

George Washington Carver

Carver was a famous African American son of a Missouri slave who became an inventor, educator and agricultural researcher in the early 1900s. He died in 1943.

Merle Sidener

An Indianapolis newspaper journalist who founded a successful advertising agency, advocating “truth in advertising” in the early 1900s.

Abram C. Shortridge

An Indiana-born educator who served as superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools in the 1860s and later served as the second president of Purdue University.

Eleanor Skillen

She was a teacher and principal in Indianapolis in the late 1800s.

Elder W. Diggs

Diggs grew up in Indiana and, as a student at Indiana University, founded the Kappa Alpha Psi black fraternity. He went on to be a principal in Vincennes and the first black graduate of the Indiana University School of Education. He died in 1947.

Louis B. Russell Jr.

He was an African-American IPS teacher and was the world’s longest living heart transplant recipient until he died in 1974, according to the school’s website.

Eliza A. Blaker

She was a teacher, kindergarten advocate and founder of a teachers college in the early 1900s, which became the education school at Butler University.

Mary Nicholson

She was an Indianapolis teacher, principal and school board member in the early 1900s.

Floro Torrence

She was a leading Indianapolis educator in the early 1900s who also attended IPS schools and graduated from Butler University.

Anna Brochhausen

She was a teacher, principal and supervisor in Indianapolis schools beginning in the 1890s who started the district’s first summer program.

Rousseau McClellan

She was a teacher at Shortridge High School for more than 40 years in the early 20th century.

George H. Fisher

A principal and assistant superintendent in Indianapolis who also served as superintendent in New Albany.

George S. Buck

The principal of Shortridge High School for 31 years until 1940.

Harvey Lee Harshman

A teacher at Arsenal Tech High School who became assistant superintendent in the mid-1900s.

Clarence Farrington

A businessman and cattle broker who was president of the National Livestock Exchange and served on the IPS school board in the 1940s.

Stephen Foster

A famous musician in the early 1800s who wrote “Oh! susanna” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A leading transcendentalist writer from Boston in the mid-1800s.

Robert Lee Frost

One of America’s most famous poets from Massachusetts in the early 20th century known for “The Road Not Taken.”

James Russell Lowell

Also a Massachusetts poet in the mid-19th century and first editor of The Atlantic Monthly.

Joyce Kilmer

A New Jersey poet known for his poem “Trees,” published in 1913.

Daniel Webster

A U.S Senator from Massachusetts who served as secretary of state under presidents Millard Fillmore and William Henry Harrison in the mid-1800s.

James A. Garfield

An Ohioan and 20th president of the United States in the 1880s.

William McKinley

Another Ohioan who served as the 25th president of the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

George Washington

A founding father and first president of the United States.

Ernie Pyle

An Indiana journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner famous for his dispatches as a war correspondent during World War II.

Raymond F. Brandes

A pharmacist who served in the IPS school board in 1950s.

John Marshall

A Virginian who was the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1800s.

Charles Warren Fairbanks

An Indiana senator who became the 26th vice president of the United States under President Theodore Roosevelt.

Francis Bellamy

A Christian minister from New York state who authored the Pledge of Allegiance.

Francis Scott Key

The author of the United States’ national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.

Frederick Douglass

An African American leader who was a national figure in the effort to abolish slavery in the Civil War era.

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