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Parents Debate Name Change for Robert E. Lee Elementary

In the midst of a national discussion about Confederate symbols, some residents in Austin's Hyde Park neighborhood want the school board to change the name of a local elementary school. Lee Elementary was named for Confederate Army Commander Robert E. Lee. 

"To honor him with naming schools after him is, I think, just inappropriate," says Teresa Griffin, a Hyde Park resident for 25 years and member of the Friends of Hyde Park Neighborhood Association

Griffin's children attended Lee Elementary in the '80s and '90s. She says she's not the first resident to question the school’s name: It’s been discussed among residents and online, but nothing ever stuck.  Now, she’s raising the idea once again on the neighborhood association’s online listserv

"I don't think we have a school in Austin called Lincoln Elementary, but we have a school that's named Robert E. Lee Elementary," Griffin says. "It just sends the wrong message."

There are 19 public schools in Texas named after Robert E. Lee, and Lee Elementary isn’t the only school in the Austin School District named after a Confederate figure. Reagan High School in northeast Austin is named for John Reagan, who was postmaster general for the Confederacy.

Some Austin School Board members say they're open to talking about the names of these schools.

“I think the discussion of renaming those schools is very valuable," says Ted Gordon, the Austin School Board Member who represents District 1. "I, for a long time, wondered how and why AISD continue to have schools like ... Reagan and Robert E. Lee continue on with their names knowing those names were not only Confederate generals, [but] soldiers and other dignitaries in the Confederacy."

Gordon says it's not always a good idea to erase history. He says it's important to understand why the schools were named after these people.

“One solution is to change those names. Another solution is to put that memorialization into context, understand what it means about the negative past of the district and of the city and use it as a basis for thinking how we can move forward more diversely and more equitable,” Gordon says.

Racial and socioeconomic equity between AISD schools is one of Gordon's biggest causes since he became a board member earlier this year. He's one of four board members on the Board Oversight Committee on Excellence Through Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.  

"It would be very healthy for this community to have this conversation," says Gina Hinojosa, Austin School Board President. "There's certainly been a history in our school district that has been very hurtful to some, and there has been a history of discrimination in the past in the school district...I think engaging in this conversation could help to address all sorts of equity issues and differences and relationships in this community."

Friends of Hyde Park leaders say they may hold a vote as early as next week to gauge whether the neighborhood wants to change Lee Elementary’s name. But not everyone agrees — some commenters on the group’s listserv want to keep the school’s name.

"Keep the name as it is," wrote Michael Tucker, a Lee Elementary School parent. "We are a way too much touchy/feely society as it is. It's a slippery slope to start delving into the good and bad points of anyone a school is named after. Sam Houston was a womanizing drunkard, Mirabeau Lamar tried to commit mutiny in the Texas Army. Let the name stay. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point, he was a great scholar and that is what school is for, scholarship and learning, he also became the Superintendent of West Point, he was a professor and a teacher. Harp on that instead of anything else. Take the man as a whole, not just one aspect of his life."

If AISD did want to change the name of the school, Superintendent Paul Cruz would need to craft a proposal for the school board. The school board would then organize a committee to consider alternative names. The district also says a lot of community input is required. 

Eventually, Griffin's grandchild will attend the school. She’s hoping by that time the school won’t be named for a man who represents the Confederacy. 

"There's no reason for us to perpetuate the mistakes of the past," Griffin says. "It's time to make a change."

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