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Students engaged in renaming Princeton Unified Middle School

<h6>Photo courtesy of © Richard Trenner ’70</h6>
Photo courtesy of © Richard Trenner ’70

Elementary, middle, and high school students in the Princeton community are researching and contributing potential names to the renaming of Princeton Unified Middle School, formerly known as John Witherspoon Middle School. 

The renaming project traces back to July 6, when Geoffrey Allen, a Princeton High School (PHS) alumnus, circulated a petition that garnered 1,549 signatures to remove John Witherspoon, a slave owner and former University president, from the school’s name. 

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“When they charged us with developing a committee in a program, they asked to engage and make this a learning experience for the youngsters,” Barry Galasso, Interim Superintendent of the Princeton Public Schools, told Princeton public school leaders in a Board of Education meeting. 

“We’re not sure how it’s going to end up, but we do know the educational process is going to end up alive and well, and the debate about solving a contemporary social problem is critical to the development and advancement of any democracy,” Galasso said.  

The project is currently in its first phase, where students in Kate Dineen’s U.S. history class at PHS are identifying namesake contenders.  

In the first phase, the board is considering all the following names for the middle school: John Lewis, Betsey Stockton, Paul Robeson, Silvia Dubois, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation, Powhatan Renape Nation, Shirley Satterfield, Albert Einstein, Michelle Obama ’85, Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation (Ramapough Mountain Indians), Dr. Cornel West GS ’80, Arthur Tappan, Joseph Bloomfield, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Albert Hinds.

Many of the figures, whose names students proposed, are affiliated with or connected to Princeton. Stockton, an educator and missionary, was born into slavery in Princeton, where she spent much of her life. Robeson, a musician, actor, and activist, grew up Princeton. Einstein famously taught at Princeton, while Obama and West are undergraduate and graduate alumni, respectively.

Satterfield, a longtime Princeton resident and expert on the historic Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood, witnessed the desegregation of Princeton’s schools.

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“When you hear the exciting things kids are involved in, pre-K to 12th, and the conversations they are having, it is involving all the racial literacy and all the social justice programs we are operating in our schools,” Galasso said. 

Among the suggested list of names, John Witherspoon and Princeton Unified Middle School remain potential options. 

“We don’t want to rule out either that students may decide to revert back to John Witherspoon or some iteration of Witherspoon, as he is a famed member of the community,” said Jason Burr, the principal of Princeton Unified Middle School. 

Teachers across all grade levels are asking students to research who or what they should name the school and provide reasons for their answers. 

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In coming up with a name, students are asked to think about Witherspoon’s legacy and expected to research the Black Lives Matter movement and define historical memory — why some stories live on while others do not. 

Some students created research projects, including a website and a video, to explain their candidates and the significance of the renaming process. 

According to the education board, they will direct a webinar and dialogue about the renaming project. 

“We came together to talk about how we could get students excited about the discussion, and the exciting part about this discussion among club leaders and alumni with the U.S. history students is it’s going to be used as an entry to turnkey some of this information to the middle school students,” Burr said. 

In a Nov. 20 webinar panel, students presented their candidates and offered the reasoning behind their choices.  

“One way we can all reach racial equity within Princeton Public Schools is understanding privilege,” said Ellie van der Schaar, a first-year student at PHS. “We need to work towards eliminating these unconscious biases.” 

Allegra Brannan, also a first-year at PHS, is excited that the school can be renamed for someone who benefited Princeton after it once gave its name to a slave owner.

“Princeton deserves to give this opportunity to someone who did something positive for the community,” Brannan said.

The renaming process should focus less on the perfect person and more on a suitable character. 

PHS first-year Anja Gatzke agreed that the naming process should focus on finding a role model of good character. 

“I was thinking about picking a person who would set the best example for the students to come,” Gatzke said.

In addition to a webinar that solicits student feedback, the board plans to launch a website, where students or members of the community can review the names being considered. 

Developers of the website are adding options to create and collect support for individual suggestions, especially for individuals not listed. Content from strong student projects will be linked to the website. 

“Throughout this process, we have actually seen our list of names grow,” Burr said. 

Using the webinar as an entry point, civics teachers have begun to engage middle school students.

“The renaming committee was invested in the idea that there be a sharing of information from older kids to middle school kids, which eventually comes to our elementary school kids,” Burr said. 

In the week of Dec. 6, civic teachers will assign middle school students a research project to identify potential candidates for the renaming. 

Students are expected to review the assorted list of renaming initiatives or monument removals happening across the country. 

“There’s also talk about engaging high school students as ambassadors serving an advisor capacity for middle school students who are building projects,” Burr said. 

As an end project, students will create a Ken-Burns-style slideshow and documentary film that includes a one-page handout of the reasonings behind their choices. 

Students will present their projects to classmates at school, and the most successful projects, approximately six to eight selections, will be shared during a “community period” that involves a school-wide vote. 

“Community period is a place where we get to know students. It’s a small community and advisory groups, and in this way, we’re hoping to maybe take the list down from 15–18 to a more manageable group of five or six that we share with the remainder of the middle school community,” Burr said. 

The vote will create a list of finalists to rename the school. Then, in February 2021, middle school students will share the projects with fifth-grade classes to help the students transition to middle school. 

Princeton Unified Middle School remains a temporary name until June 2021, the final decision date.

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