Five young speakers who could barely see over the podium lined up in the Central Campus auditorium Tuesday night to address the Des Moines School Board in front of a crowd, reporters, and cameras. If the 3rd and 4th grade students from Andrew Jackson Elementary School were intimidated, they didn’t show it.
“We are very excited to hear from students,” said Board Chair Dwana Bradley at the start of the meeting. “I don’t think we’ve had a student presentation in quite some time.”
One by one, the students stood at the microphone and talked about why they would like their school’s name changed to honor Mary Jackson, the first African American female engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
“Mary Jackson inspires us as she was the first black female who successfully became an engineer at NASA and has encouraged many of us to follow our dreams and not let anything get in the way,” said Penny Carter, 3rd grade. “She faced many challenges, but still never gave up. That inspires me to never give up.”
Other students contrasted Mary Jackson’s accomplishments and perseverance with President Jackson’s policies. Bubby Ellis-Coglizer, 3rd grade, used numbers to help make his point.
“In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act,” said Ellis-Coglizer. “One-hundred thousand: the estimated number of Native Indians forcibly removed from their native land. Four-thousand: the estimated number of Indians who died on the Trail of Tears. One hundred and sixty-one: the number of enslaved Africans Andrew Jackson owned, treated harshly, and profited from. Three words we say daily (at school) ‘Safe, Respectful, and Responsible.’ President Andrew Jackson was not.”
Maximus Vannavong, 4th grade, said Andrew Jackson’s own words about Native Americans, delivered in a message to Congress, are incompatible with his school’s mission before he read them aloud to the Board.
“They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and superior race, they must necessarily yield to force of circumstances.” – President Andrew Jackson
“We strongly disagree with his words,” Vannavong said.
Jackson Elementary is one of 38 elementary schools at DMPS, where a majority of the enrollment are students of color. Of the 386 students who attend Jackson Elementary School, 26 countries are represented and 12 languages are spoken.
“Our school represents what is beautiful about our country – diversity,” Nicole Hernandez Mendoza, 3rd grade, told the Board. “Our intention is not to erase the past but rather to move to a brighter future.”
The idea to change the school’s name started with a simple writing assignment. Each year, fourth-grade students were given the assignment to write an opinion piece, choosing a side for or against changing the name of their school. They were given unbiased grade level-appropriate material including biographies on both President Jackson and NASA engineer Mary Jackson.
The 2019-2020 class asked to turn their writing into a letter to Jackson Elementary principal Cindy Wissler, inquiring about the real-world possibility of changing the name of their school. Principal Wissler encouraged them to contact the superintendent and examine Board policy about naming of facilities.
“We teach our students that at first you must be a leader of yourself before you can lead others,” Wissler said. “What I witnessed tonight was five little people that are leading others, and I am so proud of their courage and leadership.”
Jackson Elementary teacher Bettina Bradley said the effort was student-led and teacher supported.
“I believe the students will continue to advocate for what they are passionate about,” Bradley said. “As an educator, it is my goal to empower student voice.”
Keren Moran, 4th grade, wrapped up the group presentation with a final appeal to the Board.
“The name Jackson is important to our school and community as we are the Stars, so we are asking the board to rename Andrew Jackson to Mary Jackson elementary,” Moran said. “As it states in your own vision: ‘Des Moines Public Schools is dedicated to making our students, staff, parents, volunteers feel welcomed and supported.’ Thank you for your time and consideration.”
The Board established a naming committee Tuesday night to consider changing the name of Andrew Jackson Elementary School. Board Vice Chair Teree Caldwell-Johnson and members Maria Alonzo-Diaz and Kelly Soyer will serve on the committee and make a recommendation to the Board at a future meeting.
Published on Thursday, April 21st, 2022