The Fall Church City School Board voted to change the name of George Mason High School to Meridian High School and Thomas Jefferson Elementary to its original name, Oak Street Elementary, at its meeting this Tuesday night.
Meridian High School was among the five finalist choices forwarded to the board from a citizen committee that worked arduously on the renaming issue this spring.
It gained favor with a majority of the board as Falls Church is on the original 1791 meridian delineating the boundary line between the District of Columbia and Virginia. Also, the name recognizes the school’s long history of educating its students to become global citizens through the International Baccalaureate program.
The Board unanimously selected Oak Street Elementary because, among other things, it is the school’s original name.
The new names will take effect on July 1.
The decision followed a 10-month, two-stage deliberation and decision-making process that began in June of last year. The first stage was a six-month reconsideration of the schools’ names based on the division’s policies on equity and inclusion. While the names of the two schools honored Founding Fathers, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, they also owned enslaved people.
In the spirit of the heightened sensitivity to issues of racial injustice stemming from the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the resurgence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement nationally that, among other things, spurred a student-led march down Park Avenue in Falls Church where hundreds participated, the Board solicited and received public comment and other relevant information to guide the Board’s decision about changing either school’s name.
On Dec. 8, the Board voted unanimously to change both names and designated Superintendent Peter Noonan to form two volunteer citizen advisory study committees to recommend five names for each school.
The committees included a diverse group of 46 Falls Church schools community members; staff, alumni, citizens, and students, which made up 20 percent of the total membership. Their deliberations stretched 13 public meetings over three months, including an interim and final presentation to the School Board.
At Tuesday’s meeting, there was virtually no debate over the new name of the elementary school and it was resolved with a unanimous vote in half an hour.
The main alternative choice was Tripps Run Elementary, noting the creek that runs by the school on S. Oak, but it was noted that some households in the City have suffered from flooding rising out of that creek, it may not serve as the best name for the school.
There was also consideration of making it “South Oak” in deference to the fact that, technically, the City’s other elementary school, Mt. Daniel, has a North Oak Street address. But the appeal of restoring the school’s original name was compelling.
There was much more contention around renaming the high school.
Edwin Henderson II, recently appointed as an interim board member following the resignation of Shawna Russell, pointed out that, as an early consensus began to form around the Meridian name, that the whole exercise of removing the names of slave owners was “speaking to the righting of wrongs.”
Therefore, he suggested, “choosing a name that inspires,” that “honors the importance of racial equality,” would be better, such as the “Tinner Hill” name that was among the final five recommendations.
Other suggestions included naming it for civil rights activist Sara Rose Johns or the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but aversion to naming the school for a person ruled those out.
School Board member Phil Reitinger proposed the alternatives of West Falls Church, West Falls or West End as names. Those gained more interest from his colleagues, but there was concern that a name similar to the existing Falls Church High School not far away in Fairfax County could lead to confusion that could even wind up having emergency vehicles sent to the wrong place.
Board member Susan Dimock said she still liked the name Meridian, however, as “it is not really generic and is kind of unique.”
Reitinger replied, “The more we talk about Meridian, the more I don’t want it. It has no real connection to the City.” He favored West Falls Church or West Falls.
Henderson reiterated his concern that the name reflect social justice issues and should be more aspirational.
Chair Litton called for a vote, and as Reitinger noted, it would come as a non-consensus.
The motion was made and seconded for calling the school Meridian, and it passed 5-2 (Henderson and Reitinger voting no.)
Superintendent Noonan said that the new high school, which is also brand new as a $120 million effort, in addition to having a new name, will provide opportunity “to really dig in on issues of racial justice” with the formation of a racial justice group meeting on the fifth floor of the new school.
He suggested that the new school’s slogan, with its new name, might be “Where the World Comes Together.”