Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 10
| CITIZEN Z
With Name Changes, Schools Transform
Racial Reckoning Into Real-Life Civics Lessons
Students are involved in
By Corey Mitchell
renaming T.C. Williams
High School in Alexandria,
Va. The storied school was
Addisnog-licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons
Each day that Lorraine Johnson
stepped on campus at T.C. Williams
High School in Alexandria, Va., she
struggled to shake the fact that the
school's namesake fought for decades to prevent Black and white
students from attending school together.
Johnson, a senior at the school,
is among the Black students that
led the push to change the name of
the storied school, featured in the
2000 movie " Remember the Titans, " because of the segregationist
views held by Thomas Chambliss
Williams, the former school district
superintendent for whom the school
The demographics of the 4,100-student high school just outside of
Washington, D.C., represent a city
and school system that looks much
different than it did when segregation was the law-or even when it
was encouraged. About 42 percent
of students are Hispanic, 27 percent
are Black, 25 percent are white, and
4 percent are Asian. The remaining 4 percent of students identify
as multiracial, Native American, or
The push to rename schools in
Alexandria is part of a national conversation and reckoning on who
schools and other public places are
named for. As protests against systemic racism and police brutality
surfaced across the United States
this summer after the police killing
of George Floyd, students nationwide joined and even led campaigns
to rename schools that honor segregationists, slave owners, and Confederate leaders.
People who want to keep the names
maintain that they are pushing back
against agitators who want to wipe
away history. Activists and students
who support changing the names
have argued that schools should not
honor racists and people who supported or fought to preserve the institution of slavery.
At the very least, the discussions
have exposed students to an unvarnished, more complete version of
history. Supported by the school district, the effort in Alexandria laid out
history lessons and encouraged civic
engagement to give students a voice
and stake in purging the legacy of a
man who was convinced that white
and Black students learned differently. Because of that belief, Williams resisted efforts to desegregate
the city's schools during his nearly
three-decade tenure as district
leader from the mid-1930s to 1963.
" You cannot separate the culture
from the name, " said Ra Alim Shabazz, who teaches honors government, social justice, and global ma-
jority studies classes at the school.
" To look at our school community
today, it is no longer a good fit for
who we are. "
In November, the district school
board voted unanimously to rename
T.C. Williams and Matthew Maury
Elementary School, which honors a
naval officer who joined the Confederacy during the Civil War, in spring
2021. The district has invited students to present names for consideration through an essay and poster
competition. Later in the process,
the district will also allow residents
to submit suggestions.
In her role as student school board
representative, she joined Zoom
meetings to help the board and district leaders understand how students felt about the school renaming and other issues of racial equity
even though she could not vote on
Now that the district has decided
to change the name of the school,
engaged students such as Johnson
and sophomore Aaliyah Royster
want to work alongside school district administrators and teachers
such as Shabazz to address present
The change " seems like a small
thing but it can have a big domino
effect, " Royster said. " There are
so many disparities based on race
The Alexandria schools began the
so-called " Identity Project " in response to petitions from residents
demanding name changes for the
schools. The district seized on the opportunity to offer a real-life experience
in civics education and developed social studies lessons for high school and
elementary school students that delve
into the biographies of Williams and
Maury and the eras they lived in.
10 | EDUCATION WEEK | January 13, 2021 | www.edweek.org
" There's a lot in a name, " said district Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, an African American and a T.C.
Williams graduate. " But changing
the name isn't going to solve all the
systemic racism. We still have so
much more work to do. This is just
literally the first step. "
The racial disparities in student
discipline and access to advanced
courses run deep at T.C. Williams,
federal civil rights data show. White
students are four times more likely
to be enrolled in honors courses
than Hispanic students and Black
students are twice as likely to be
suspended as white students.
Over the summer, Johnson helped
organize student-led Black Lives
Matter marches in the Washington
area. Efforts to engage with students
and encourage civic participation
should extend well beyond the Identity Project, she said.
" You can't lose sight of the students in the process, " Johnson said.
" We have our own stories to tell. "
In places such as Marietta, Ga.,
and Tyler, Texas, students contributed to public debates on name
changes for their schools. Most of
the schools in question were named
in the 1950s and 1960s for Confederate heroes as part of a white resistance to the 1954 U.S. Supreme
Court decision Brown v. Board of
Education, which established that
racial segregation in public schools
was unconstitutional. Most of the
schools named in that case are concentrated in seven Southern states,
At the beginning of June, at least 215
schools in 18 states were named for
people with ties to the Confederacy.
Since late June, at least 23 Confederate-named schools have changed
names, but not all the campaigns and
debates over renaming schools had
the backing of public leaders.
In October, San Francisco Mayor
originally named for a
who was an avowed
London Breed criticized the timing
of the debate over renaming schools
there. Breed said that, amid the pandemic, the school district should
focus on getting children back into
classrooms if it really wants to address equity and systemic racism.
The school district is weighing plans
to rename a third of the city's public
schools, 42 in all.
" The fact that our kids aren't in
school is what's driving inequity in our
city-not the name of a school, " said
Breed, a graduate of the San Francisco
schools and the first African-American woman to lead her city.
Breed's stance raises the question
of how students can effect change in
their schools when they do not have
adults backing their efforts.
Tools to Engage
Alexandria student leaders and
Hutchings, the district superintendent, think the change there signals a generational shift in teenage
activism on issues of symbolic and
structural racism in the Washington
suburb and perhaps nationwide.
During his time as a district student, Hutchings said his parents
had to file a petition after he was
denied access to the school's honors
program. Beyond his own struggles,
he " didn't know how to articulate
disparities, " he said. " But I knew we
had them. "
Now, with easy access to information and tools, such as social media
or via the internet, students have
everything they need to mobilize
and affect change-whether adults
approve or not.
" They know what's going on and
they have the tools to engage, " said
Leah Brown, a historian and the assistant director of education at the
Moton Museum in Prince Edward
The museum is housed in a once
all-Black school that played a crucial role in the national fight against
school segregation. A strike led by
Moton High School students over
unequal learning conditions in
Prince Edward County led to a lawsuit that was among the five cases
folded into the larger Brown v. Board
of Education case.
" It's interesting to fast-forward
decades to see how protesting has
changed, " Brown said. " It's a different aspect of the same struggle
toward equality. "
Students and Black residents in
Alexandria did not have the power
to challenge the name of the former
T.C. Williams High when it opened
a generation ago, said Shabazz, who,
in addition to teaching, serves as an
advisor to the school's Black Student Union and Minority Student
Achievement Network. Students in
his classes learn about the history of
Williams, who died in 1994.
As an Alexandria high school
student in the early to mid-1990s,
Hutchings, the superintendent,
said the fact that Williams was an
ardent segregationist seemed like
" an urban legend, " something that
most people thought was true but
could not confirm.
" When you tweak what people
know, it can be powerful, " Shabazz
Royster agreed. She is enrolled in
one of Shabazz's classes.
" I didn't ever think what we learned
in class would have a big impact, "
she said. " Students are going to
[step up now] and have these uncomfortable conversations. There's
so much more to be done. "
ABOUT THE CITIZEN Z PROJECT
U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American
leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to
young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is
experiencing a civic crisis, as many say it is, schools may well be
failing at that job.
This article is part of an ongoing effort by Education Week
to understand the role of education in preparing the next
generation of citizens. See other stories in the Citizen Z series:
Education Week - January 13, 2021
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - January 13, 2021
Education Week - January 13, 2021
Teachers Are Already Getting COVID-19 Vaccines
High Risk for COVID-19 And Forced Back to Class
The High-Stakes Tests Facing Miguel Cardona
Where the Nominee Stands On Key K-12 Policy Issues
With Name Changes, Schools Transform Racial Reckoning Into Real-Life Civics Lessons
Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This Year?
Millions of ELL Students Face In-Person, Federal Testing During COVID-19
DeVos Resigns a Day After Pro-Trump Mob Storms U.S. Capitol
Insurgency at the U.S. Capitol: A Dreaded, Real-Life Lesson Facing Teachers
Caring for Students in the Wake of a Traumatic News Event
Civil Rights for the New Administration
We Must Talk About Remote Student Absenteeism
Letters to the Editor
EdWeek Top School Jobs
Empty Promises Of Equity
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Education Week - January 13, 2021
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 2
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Briefly Stated
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 4
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Teachers Are Already Getting COVID-19 Vaccines
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - High Risk for COVID-19 And Forced Back to Class
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 7
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Where the Nominee Stands On Key K-12 Policy Issues
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 9
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - With Name Changes, Schools Transform Racial Reckoning Into Real-Life Civics Lessons
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 11
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This Year?
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 13
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Millions of ELL Students Face In-Person, Federal Testing During COVID-19
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - DeVos Resigns a Day After Pro-Trump Mob Storms U.S. Capitol
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Insurgency at the U.S. Capitol: A Dreaded, Real-Life Lesson Facing Teachers
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Caring for Students in the Wake of a Traumatic News Event
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Civil Rights for the New Administration
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - We Must Talk About Remote Student Absenteeism
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Letters to the Editor
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 21
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - 22
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - EdWeek Top School Jobs
Education Week - January 13, 2021 - Empty Promises Of Equity