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Renaming the Middle School:

The Goals and Process

Our community's commitment to our core values of diversity, inclusion, and respect for all is at the foundation of the Princeton Unified Middle School's (PUMS) process to determine its new name.

The school was previously named for John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was the sixth president of Princeton University, but also a slaveholder. In 2020, the Board of Education approved PUMS as a temporary name, charging the district with determining a new name aligned with the school's values by June 2021. 

Cast Your Vote March 8 - April 1

As part of the educational component of the PUMS renaming process, the district is inviting community engagement with student work and seeking input.  This input will be considered by district administration in making final recommendations to the Board of Education, which is ultimately responsible for decisions around the naming school buildings. 

After many months of research and reflection by students and community members, these are the semi-finalists:

  • Albert Einstein Middle School
  •  Elizabeth Stockton Middle School
  •  John Lewis Middle School
  •  Michelle Obama Middle School
  •  Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation Middle School
  •  Paul Robeson Middle School
  •  Ruth Bader Ginsburg Middle School
  •  Shirley Satterfield Middle School
  •  Princeton Community School
  •  Walnut Lane Middle School

In the fall of 2020 Princeton High School students in U.S. History 1 classes conducted research projects to consider “who or what” the new name of Princeton Unified Middle School should honor, exploring this question with consideration for both historical and modern contexts. (See sidebar.)

Throughout the student-led process, with input students from a wide range of grade levels as well as members of the community, the high school students shared their findings, examined their conclusions and gained new insights into the importance of conducting original research and consulting multiple sources and points of view as they honed their arguments for their preferred candidates. They then created presentations in support of their opinions and presented them, via webinar, to students at the middle school.

With the high school students' findings as a foundation, middle school 8th graders, working in teams, spearheaded the next phase of the project. They developed their own arguments about what name their school should carry, and shared them with their classmates as well as students in other grades. The students voted on the choices, creating a list of finalists for consideration for the community at large, and ultimately the Board of Education.

The possibilities were wide-ranging--should it be a celebrated figure who has had a positive impact on the entire nation, like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis? Or should the name recognize the original inhabitants of the Princeton region--the strong and resilient Nanticoke Lenni Lenape Nation, who were forced from their lands generations ago? Or should we honor a distinguished Princetonian, like slave-turned educator Betsey Stockton, or sixth-generation historian and civic leader Shirley Satterfield? Perhaps it should be someone of both national and local renown—scientist Albert Einstein, entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, or former first lady and Princeton University alumna Michelle Obama. Or maybe it 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. 

The middle schoolers' presentations in support of the finalists can be viewed here. 

We hope you'll take the time to watch them, and to vote for the choice that you believe is the most appropriate for our school.

 

From the Historical Society of Princeton:

The Long History Behind the Schools' Previous Names

This is not the first time the middle school's name has been changed to reflect an evolution of values and circumstances. The school dates back to the 1830s, when Betsey Stockton, a former slave who became the first known educator for Black students in Princeton, began teaching out of a house on Witherspoon Street. The Historical Society of Princeton has provided a complete history of the school:

The Witherspoon School for Colored Children (also known as the Witherspoon Street School for Colored Children) was the segregated school that served Princeton’s K-8 Black students prior to school integration.  The Witherspoon School dates back to the 1830s, when Betsey Stockton, the first known educator for Black students in Princeton, began teaching out of a house on Witherspoon Street. Public funding for the school started in the 1850s, when a small schoolhouse was built. By the time Stockton died in 1865, the Witherspoon School had become more robust. By the 1870s, it had moved to a larger building at the corner of Maclean and Witherspoon Streets (184 Witherspoon Street, photograph here). In 1908, the school moved to a still larger facility on Quarry Street (photograph here). Although the school left its location on Witherspoon Street with this move, it retained the Witherspoon School for Colored Children name. 

In 1948, Princeton schools integrated using the “Princeton Plan for School Reorganization,” which retained and repurposed the existing school buildings, staff, and administration from Princeton’s segregated schools. Under the Princeton Plan, the former K-8 school for white students on Nassau Street became the integrated school for grades K-5, while the former K-8 school for Black students on Quarry Street became the integrated school for grades 6-8. The high school had already been integrated since around 1915. Through this transition, the Witherspoon School for Colored Children became simply “the Witherspoon School,” with its Quarry Street building now serving all races of middle school students. 

The middle school soon outgrew the Quarry Street building, and the district then built the present building on Walnut Lane in 1964.  When the middle school moved to the Walnut Lane building, the Board of Education asked for community input on the name for the new school and building. The Board of Education proposed to retain the name that was already assigned to the “present Witherspoon School.” Ultimately, the full name “John Witherspoon School,” with the addition of “John” for the first time, was assigned to the school in 1964.

Some Board of Education members saw the name of the new building in 1964 as a reaffirmation of the existing name and, as such, a way to continue the history of a “soon to be abandoned school.” In this vein, Graham Rohrer, Board President at the time, noted, "We are perpetuating a school name." Board member Bryan Moore said, “This is especially nice. My mother taught in the Witherspoon School.” (Town Topics, June 25, 1964). The Board of Education members also saw the John Witherspoon School name as a way to continue to honor John Witherspoon himself, whose name had already been given to “two streets, a Princeton University dormitory, and the existing elementary school on Quarry Street” (Princeton Herald, June 26, 1964). 

 

Renaming: The Background

This has been a year-long project, driven by students and conducted with thoughtful input from students at the middle school and Princeton High School as well as teachers, staff, and members of the community. Their dedication to its success has been extraordinary. You can read about how the renaming project progressed over the past year in the archived stories below.

 

Student-Led Process Incorporates Community Suggestions

The process began with Princeton High School students researching names suggested during community meetings, by alumni, and through the Princeton Historical Society. Students advocated for the names they researched in formal discussions and debates and presented their work via a November 20 webinar to students at the middle school.

Middle school students discussined options in the context of other recent naming controversies across the country. Working in teams, 8th graders developed arguments in favor of naming the school after a specific individual, maintaining a nonspecific name such as Princeton Unified, or reverting to a version of the school’s historic name. Teams prepared documentary slideshows presenting their reasoning to classmates, as well as to 6th and 7th graders through the middle school advisory program. Teams were selected to present their arguments to the entire middle school student body. Students voted, creating a list of semi-finalists for consideration by the community.

In September, the district created a committee comprised of community members, alumni, and educators to guide the process of selecting a new name and to make the process as inclusive and educationally meaningful as possible.

In public discussions in August and September, community members suggested a wide variety of possible names. The school’s previous name honored a signer of the Declaration of Independence who was also the sixth president of Princeton University. However, John Witherspoon owned slaves and advocated against the abolition of slavery, and that was the impetus for a petition last summer seeking the name change, which garnered over 1,500 signatures. Princeton Unified Middle School was chosen by the board as a temporary name pending a decision on a permanent name in June 2021.

 

Students Drive Process to Rename PUMS

A deep commitment to reflecting the school's core values of diversity, inclusion, and respect for all is at the foundation of the Princeton Unified Middle School's (PUMS) process to determine its new name.

The first phase of the project was considering the namesake contenders identified by members of teacher Katie Dineen's History One class at Princeton High School.

  • Should it be a celebrated figure who has had a positive impact on the entire nation, like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, or abolitionist Joseph Bloomfield, the fourth governor of New Jersey?
  • Or a distinguished Princetonian, like slave-turned educator Betsey Stockton, sixth-generation historian and civic leader Shirley Satterfield, or Albert Hinds, who helped Princeton transform from a segregated to an inclusive society over his 104 years as a citizen of the town?
  • Perhaps it should be someone of both national and local renown—scientist Albert Einstein, entertainer and activist Paul Robeson, or former first lady Michelle Obama.
  • Or maybe the school shouldn’t carry the name of an individual, because its values are embodied by the students, teachers, and administrators who learn and work there rather than the achievements and reputation of any one person, no matter how accomplished. Each student created a presentation in support of their preferred outcomes.

A Name That Reflects Our Values

  • The project stems from a 2020 decision to remove the name John Witherspoon, a former slaveholder, from the school. The Board of Education approved PUMS as a temporary name and charged the district with determining a new name that is aligned with the school's values by June 2021.
  • The many possibilities were explored by the students during a November 20 webinar panel discussion. Each student advocated for his or her candidate, offering the reasoning behind their choices and discussing the history and motives for renaming the school.
  • Panelists shared their thoughts about the significance of the names and the criteria for re-naming the school, agreeing that all the possibilities were equally worthy, and that they had learned a great deal about the importance of conducting original research using multiple sources and varying perspectives instead of accepting a single-source version of an event or person. They also learned a great deal about the town of Princeton, as most had been unaware of its segregated past and noted that they had been deeply impressed by learning about its evolution to the diverse community it is today.
  • Jason Burr, principal of PUMS, commended the students for both their work and the quality of their discussion. "What a great example of politely experiencing a dialogue together and being able to agree, and disagree, with one another in a manner that is civil."
  • The PHS students' presentations were a starting point for engaging middle school students, and eventually younger students and the community at large, in the renaming process.
  • School library media specialist Jennifer Bigioni, who worked closely with the students as they conducted their research, is enthusiastic about their efforts and insights. "Our future is bright because of you guys," she said.

 

 

PHS Student Panelists and their Projects