Friday, December 8, 2023

WJCC School Board to review name change policy

Lois Hornsby, a retired educator and the namesake of Hornsby Middle School, shares her experience with Rawls Byrd during the May 10, 2016 WJCC School Board meeting. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)
Lois Hornsby, a retired educator and the namesake of Hornsby Middle School, shares her experience with Rawls Byrd during the May 10, 2016 WJCC School Board meeting. (Kirsten Petersen/ WYDaily)

The WJCC School Board will consider adopting its first policy for naming schools during its meeting Tuesday night.

The policy was drafted, in part, as a response to a campaign advocating for the renaming of Rawls Byrd Elementary School. Some former WJCC students and community members recall Rawls Byrd, the WJCC Schools superintendent from 1928 to 1964, as a vocal segregationist who kept the schools separated by race for 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional in the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education.

On May 24, the school board voted 6-0, with one abstention, to begin the process of changing the school’s name.

The WJCC School Division has no policy for naming or renaming schools, but some neighboring school divisions do. The York County School Division, for example, has decided that none of its schools will be named for a person, living or deceased.

The proposed WJCC Schools policy, included in full below, would not affect any schools currently named for people and would permit future schools to be named only for individuals who have been deceased for more than 10 years. Byrd was still alive in 1965, when the school was named for him.

The school board would also be able to change the name of a school if it is “appropriate to do so.”

It is the responsibility of the Williamsburg-James City County School Board to determine the name of schools and school facilities in the division. The Board will solicit and accept input from the public regarding the names of schools and school facilities but reserves the right to make the final decision regarding the name of any school or school facility.

Suggestions regarding the name of a school or school facility must be in writing, must state the name of the person or group making the suggestion and must state the reasons supporting the suggestion. The School Board may create a committee to make recommendations to the Board on the naming of any school or school facility.

Among other requirements, and effective with the adoption of this policy, when naming any school or other school division facility for an individual, absent extraordinary circumstances, the School Board will consider naming such facility only for an individual who has been deceased for at least ten years.

The Board may rename a school or school facility upon a determination that it is appropriate to do so. The procedure for renaming a school or school facility will be the same as the procedure outlined above.

Board vice chairwoman Kyra Cook (City of Williamsburg) and member Sandy Young (Berkeley) reviewed the proposed policy during a policy committee meeting June 14.

Young said ideally the policy would prevent schools’ names from being changed multiple times, but Cook said it is not within the school board’s power to restrict the actions of future boards.

“Almost every person that I know, no matter how wonderful they are, they have things that could be dredged up from the past,” Young said. “I don’t want to be in a continual state of renaming schools.”

Neither had serious concerns with the policy and both agreed it was ready for a first reading June 21. Cook said the board should ask the school division administration to devise a timeline for changing the name of Rawls Byrd before the second reading and adoption of the policy July 12.

“That way we’re having a public discussion to say, ‘Assuming we adopt this, that’s when the bell rings for starting a conversation on this subject,’” Cook said.

Kelly, who abstained from the vote May 24 because he felt the school board was moving too quickly, apologized during the June 7 meeting for the way Rawls Byrd Elementary students and staff learned of the prospective name change.

“The faculty and staff had to manage the 600 students who were taken by surprise by our action, some of which had to take SOLs [Standards of Learning tests] that day, some who were moved to tears that their school was going to be renamed,” Kelly said.

He ended his remarks by encouraging the board to identify what it can “do better” during the upcoming school year, while also conceding that “it’s too late” to revise its action and the board should “move on.”

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