The Next Page: The presidential name drain
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Of the last five school buildings that have opened in Western Pennsylvania, only one was named for a person.
And that school, the reopened McCormick Elementary in the Moon Area School District, was named for the farm family that donated the land when the school was originally built in 1969.
This region isn't unique. All across the nation, there have been fewer schools each decade that are named for public figures, and most particularly, for U.S. presidents, who at one time were the among the most popular choices to be etched into a school's archway.
In Western Pennsylvania, no school has been named for a president in the past 40 years, and no president's name has gone on a building since John F. Kennedy.
The national pattern is the same. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that when it comes to school building names, no 20th- or 21st-century presidents come close to the "big three" of our earlier history -- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln's name is on 595 schools nationally, Washington's on 443 and Jefferson's on 383, and that's excluding cases where the street or locality might have been named for the presidents.
After 1900, the closest last-name competitor is Roosevelt, with 221 school buildings (which could combine presidents Theodore and Franklin), and the closest full-name competitor is Kennedy, with 104 schools named in his honor.
Since then, the only president whose full name hit double digits nationally was Lyndon Johnson, with 12.
Locally, the numbers are: Washington, 6; Jefferson, 4; Lincoln 3; Herbert Hoover, 1; Dwight Eisenhower, 2; and Kennedy, 1.
And here's your trivia fact for the day: The only existing Roosevelt school, a Pittsburgh elementary in Carrick, is actually named for Quentin Roosevelt, Teddy's son, who was shot down by the Germans in World War I while flying a mission behind enemy lines.
Why the big dropoff in naming schools for presidents?
Jay Greene, head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, thinks it partly reflects the falling stock of civic education, part of which involves lifting up the virtues of national leaders.
On top of that, he said, most school boards today are reluctant to get into fights over naming schools for a president or any other figure who might be controversial.
"To name a school after a person or a political leader requires an investment of political capital and invites a conflict, because people will disagree about who is worthy of being honored," he said, "and school boards simply don't want to devote their political capital to these debates."
That phenomenon has shown up in a number of spats in recent years over attempts to name public buildings for former President Ronald Reagan, including one effort in the Upper St. Clair School District.
In that case, former school board President Mark Trombetta wanted to rename a middle school for Mr. Reagan. The idea was eventually transformed into naming a Hall of Presidents in Mr. Reagan's honor at the high school.
Disputes like that show the major shift in our attitudes toward public leaders over the decades, said Sanford Levinson, a University of Texas law professor who has written about the symbolism of public monuments in America.
"In the good old days," Dr. Levinson said, "it was assumed presidents were our heroes, and people who didn't find presidents heroic often were marginalized."
Today, the opposite often seems to hold. One example Dr. Levinson cites is Andrew Jackson, who has 14 schools named for him across the nation, but none in recent memory.
"It would be very difficult today to name a school after him in any states with American Indians or states with enough liberals to pick up the cause, because in their eyes, the most important impact of the age of Jackson was the forced removal of Indians from their homelands."
A study done last year by Dr. Greene and colleagues at the University of Arkansas examined school names in seven states representing 20 percent of all pupils, and found that in a majority of school districts, not a single school was named for a president.
In fact, in Florida, he said, there were more schools named for manatees than for George Washington, and in Arizona, a new school was 50 times more likely to be named for a cactus or a mesa than for a president.
One of the more disturbing trends Dr. Greene found was that many schools being built today are named for housing subdivisions whose developers are willing to donate land in return for naming honors.
"The developers like it because it implies that it's some sort of semi-private school," he said.
"And the names!" he said. "They all sound like day spas or herbal tea -- things like Whispering Winds or Hawk's Bluff."
If there's one exception to the trend in Western Pennsylvania, it's the Mt. Lebanon School District, which has five schools named for presidents: Washington, Lincoln, Hoover and Jefferson (twice).
The Washington and Lincoln schools are the oldest, said Cissy Bowman, school district spokeswoman.
Jefferson Elementary was opened in 1952, she said, and was named by a vote of all schoolchildren in grades 3 to 12 from a list of famous figures that had been compiled by elementary students at Lincoln School, some of whom would transfer to the new building.
Herbert Hoover Elementary was named by action of the school board in 1964, at a time when many school districts around the nation were considering naming buildings for slain president John F. Kennedy. It undoubtedly reflects the solid Republican culture in Mt. Lebanon at the time, Ms. Bowman said.
If you're looking for a counterbalance, Plum Borough School District has one to offer -- Adlai Stevenson Elementary, named for the two-time Democratic also-ran against Eisenhower.
But none of those names has been put on in recent years, and Jay Greene thinks that's a shame.
"I don't pretend to know the right person to be honored or the right value to be praised, but people ought to decide who they wish to honor and ought to use that opportunity to convey to their children what they deem important" by putting their names on school buildings.
"We're missing that opportunity by coming up with names that mean nothing to us and therefore mean nothing to our children."
First Published February 17, 2008 12:00 am