The Princeton Public Schools administration has recommended to the Board of Education that a new name for the Princeton Unified Middle School be non-person specific, it was reported at tonight’s board meeting. The recommendation follows several months of educational activity that engaged students in researching naming prospects, as well as polls of students and members of the public.
Potential names recommended include Walnut Lane Middle School, Princeton Community Middle School, Princeton Public Middle School, Princeton Middle School, and Princeton Unified Middle School.
In addition, to ensure that the educational component of the renaming process continues for the benefit of future students, it has been recommended that the middle school: (i) highlight historical figures and local Princetonians who had been considered through the naming of hallways and/or building wings; (ii) create a permanent historical exhibit in the Learning Commons, with assistance from local historian Shirley Satterfield and the Princeton Historical Society, that highlights the contributions of Betsy Stockton and other early history of the Witherspoon School; and (iii) place a marker on school grounds noting the former name of the John Witherspoon School and the work done to reexamine this name.
Jason Burr, PUMS principal and the primary organizer of the educational and outreach efforts surrounding the school renaming project, will present these recommendations at the Board’s public meeting on Tuesday, May 25, for Board discussion and for public comment. The Board then plans to vote on a new name for the middle school at its meeting on June 15.
In August, the Board voted to remove the name of the John Witherspoon Middle School and temporarily rename the school as Princeton Unified Middle School. At that time, the Board set a deadline of June 30, 2021 and requested that administrators and staff engage students and the local community in an educational journey to identify potential new names. Educators engaged middle school and high school students in the process. Ninth grade history students advocated for local and national figures as potential candidates for naming; eight grade civics students studied local heroes and role models and renaming movements across the country, creating short documentaries in support of candidates. The students recommended both individual names and non-person specific names, and the entire middle school voted on what they would like the new name of their middle school to be. In addition, multiple community forums were held, celebrating student work and considering the complicated legacy of John Witherspoon as well as the history of segregation in the Princeton schools and wider community. After gathering student and community feedback on potential names, Jason Burr, principal of the Princeton Unified Middle School, who led the renaming efforts, made the recommendations to the Board.
The naming possibilities identified by students were wide-ranging. Candidates included celebrated figures who have had a positive impact on the entire nation, such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis; distinguished Princetonians, such as educator Betsey Stockton, who had herself been enslaved, and sixth-generation historian and civic leader Shirley Satterfield; as well as individuals with both national and local renown, such as scientist Albert Einstein, entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, and former first lady and Princeton University alumna Michelle Obama.
In the end, the largest share of students and community members expressed support for the belief that the name shouldn't honor a person at all, because the school's values are embodied by the students, teachers, and administrators who learn and work there rather than the achievements of any one person.
“I was proud to see that our students engaged with real interest and energy in researching and advocating for different naming possibilities,” said Board of Education President Beth Behrend. “The individuals they identified have made important contributions to our community and to the society, and they deserve to be celebrated. We want to ensure that future generations of students have the same opportunity to learn about the work of these citizens and others who make a difference.”