After months of painful debate among parents about letting their young children vote on an issue heavy with racial overtones, students at Jefferson Elementary School will have final say on a controversial petition drive to change the school’s name. But they will participate only from the confines of their homes.
With Superintendent Michele Lawrence in attendance, the Jefferson PTA Tuesday averted a showdown at the Board of Education by permitting students to sign a community-driven petition to rename the school so that it doesn’t bear the mark of a slave holder.
As required under district policy, the compromise gives a voice to students, even those too young to read the petition. However it takes the student portion of the participation outside of the walls of the school itself, where several parents feared that teachers or fellow students could manipulate the process.
“I’m not comfortable with kids voting here,” said Chris Hudson, a parent who offered the compromise. He said the issue had been more divisive than he expected and that he would feel better “if the petition came home and we’d have a chance to discuss it.”
In accordance with district rules that require support from 20 percent of parents, staff and students in order to consider changing a school name, opponents of Jefferson last spring collected signatures from 40 percent of parents and 32 percent of staff. However their drive stalled on the issue of taking the petition to students.
Many parents argued that the petition—which holds that as a slaveholder, Jefferson was unfit to be honored by the school—presented issues too complex for young children to grasp fully, and which could potentially lead to strife in classrooms.
Although several parents Tuesday held firm to their contention that seeking student approval for the petition was “nonsensical,” nearly all agreed it was preferable to prolonging the dispute that has virtually paralyzed the PTA.
The nearly unanimous vote to include students came in stark contrast to the February PTA meeting in which parents voted overwhelmingly to petition the school board for a waiver exempting the school from following the district policy. The PTA later backed off that vote at the behest of Superintendent Lawrence, who opposed a waiver. She said other schools, including Rosa Parks Elementary, had followed the name change procedures, and warned that a decision by the board probably wouldn’t come until May.
“I’m glad the process is moving forward,” said Derrick Miller, a parent who has questioned the name change.
Had the dispute not been resolved this school year, the names of parents whose children graduate in June would have been disqualified, potentially causing the process to start from scratch.
With the agreement now in place, Principal Betty Delaney will send the petition to students’ homes along with a letter to parents explaining its significance. Teachers will devise lessons on Jefferson in the weeks leading up to the mailing, she said.
If 20 percent of students return a signed petition, as expected, a committee consisting of parents and staff will devise a process for selecting alternative names.
Delaney said the committee would eventually select one or two names to compete with Jefferson in a final vote. The name that wins the votes of more than 50 percent of parents, staff and students will be submitted to the school board for official approval.
Parents on both sides of the debate had reservations about the compromise, but expressed relief the dispute over the student vote was behind them.
Kevin Adkinson said he would have liked to see the vote and debate more “out in the open.” Bernhard Leidewigt agreed that the dispute made for a good learning opportunity, but maintained that the decision should be left to parents and staff. “It’s appropriate for students to be involved in the discussion,” he said. “What’s not appropriate is for students to make judgments based on historical knowledge they don’t have.”