As Dallas ISD mulled over changing school names during the board briefing on Sept. 14, Jenn Dawkins was hand-delivering the paperwork to have the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary changed. If all went according to plan, the Confederate-named school will soon be Geneva Heights Elementary.
It’s been a long time coming in the Lee community.
For years, Dawkins says, Lee Elementary did not welcome parental involvement or communicate well with parents and the wider community. “The administration had been a barrier to creating deep roots,” Dawkins says. From time to time, the issue of the school’s name would bubble up, but the community and school were never organized enough to make anything happen.
When principal Bert Hart took over a couple years ago, things began to change. Parental involvement was welcomed, the school began to go through the IB process and saw an increase in attendance. This momentum translated into increased organization, and this past spring parents began to coalesce around the idea of a name change, right around the time national debate over Confederate monuments began to boil over.
Dawkins, the PTA president, began talking about the name change with a group of parents and community members led by Lee parent Mike Koprowski, former chief of transformation and Innovation at DISD. In July, a group of 20 parents met with trustee Dustin Marshall and talked through the process and how they would reach out to the community. The consensus was that the name should be changed, but that the new nomenclature should be connected to a sense of place, and come from the community. But the group wants to move quickly.
“The longer this goes on, the school becomes a flashpoint for protests,” says Luke Rice, Site Based Decision Making (SBDM) Committee chair.
In August, just days after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the SBDM moved the process forward by making a plan to get word out to the community.
“If Dallas ISD is going to push the schools to change names, we want to be on the front end,” Dawkins says. The team began polling alumni, neighbors, parents and Lee community members with three questions: 1) What do you think about the name change? 2) Do you agree? and 3) Do you have any name suggestions?
Of the 290 people that were polled, 136 favored a name change, 26 opposed and the rest were indifferent or didn’t respond.
Nearly 50 parents, staff, community members and alumni attended a well-advertised meeting to discuss new names, where the suggestions included such names as Delmar Heights, Lower Greenville, Belmont and Matilda.
During the meeting, a Lee alumni from the 1960s named Manuel Zaby emotionally spoke of a neighbor of his for whom he wished the school would be named. While the group didn’t pick his suggested name (Hardwick Elementary), at one point someone asked what the DCAD plat was near the school. It was Zaby who knew from memory: Geneva Heights. This quickly became the favorite of the crowd, and after the vote, 75 percent approved of the new name.
To further the connection, IB began in Geneva Switzerland, and the school will become an IB school this spring. The school officially submitted the paperwork to rebrand itself as Geneva Heights, which was signed by 45 stakeholders including Hart, Dawkins and SBDM chair Luke Rice.
Though it appears the board of trustees will vote on a resolution requiring several schools to change their names by December, Dawkins hopes that it will sign off on Lee’s name change soon, so that Geneva Heights can be used during the IB designation process in the spring.
“We are ready. We haven’t bought yard signs or T-shirts this year,” Dawkins says.
The board of trustees will meet Sept. 28 to further discuss the issue.
“In the end, it is just a name,” Rice says. “But there are a lot of emotions surrounding it.”
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