By Samantha Hernandez, Des Moines Register
Two years ago, fourth-grade teachers at Andrew Jackson Elementary asked their students to consider whether the school should change its name.
Those writing assignments kicked off a movement not even a global pandemic could derail. On Tuesday, five members of the school’s student leadership team presented their arguments for renaming the school to the Des Moines School Board.
The call to rename buildings, awards and street names that carry the monikers of controversial historical figures, including former President Andrew Jackson, has grown in recent years.
In Iowa, local governments have sought to honor different historical figures and school districts have changed mascots in an effort to be more inclusive and not perpetuate racial stereotypes.
Last year, for example, the Johnson County Board of Supervisors voted to rededicate Johnson County after late historian and college administrator Lulu Merle Johnson, a native of Gravity, Iowa. Johnson County’s original namesake was former Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson. The Kentucky native was a lifelong slave owner who took credit for killing a Shawnee chief during an 1805 battle.
The Des Moines elementary school renaming project was waylaid when schools closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, Jackson Elementary teachers began discussing moving forward with the name change.
Bettina Bradley, a reading and math interventionist, advocated letting students lead the project. This year, the school’s student leader group wrote a letter to Superintendent Tom Ahart to ask what the process is for changing a school’s name.
“Oftentimes, we task students with things that are not real-world applicable,” Bradley said. “And so, seeing them being able to say, ’this is what we’ve worked on. This is our voice’” is rewarding.
During Tuesday’s regular Des Moines School Board meeting, the students made their case. They highlighted Andrew Jackson’s ownership of enslaved people and his signing of the Indian Removal Act, the 1830 law that authorized the president to negotiate the removal of Native Americans from native lands to federal land.
The act resulted in more than 46,000 Native Americans being forced out of their homes. More than 4,000 died on the “Trail of Tears” from disease, hunger and extreme conditions.
“The name Jackson is important to our school and community, as we are the stars,” said student Keren Moran, referring to the school’s mascot. “So, we’re asking the board to rename Andrew Jackson to Mary Jackson Elementary as it states in your vision: Des Moines Public Schools is dedicated to making our students, staff, volunteers (and) parents feel welcomed and supported.”
Mary Jackson was NASA’s first Black female engineer. Her story was made famous in the 2016 book and film “Hidden Figures.”
The students also focused on the pride they have for their diverse school.
Jackson Elementary is among the district’s most diverse schools. Of the nearly 400 students, just 25% are white. About 36% are Hispanic and 12% are Black, according to state data. About 20% are Asian.
“Our intention is not to erase the past but rather to look to a brighter future,” said student Nicole Hernandez.
If the school board approves the change, rebranding should not be a huge undertaking, said Cynthia Wissler, the school’s principal.
Andrew Jackson’s full name only appears on the front of the school, she said in the same interview. It is unknown how much it will cost to replace the signage if the change is approved.
School board Chair Dwana Bradley told the students a naming committee will take their request under review.
Samantha Hernandez covers education for the Register. Reach her at (515) 851-0982 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @svhernandez or Facebook at facebook.com/svhernandezreporter.