November 18, 2020

A “Teachable Moment,” As Princeton Works to Rename Middle School

By Donald Gilpin

In the ongoing response to a stormy conflict that arose last summer over the name of the former John Witherspoon Middle School (for now Princeton Unified Middle School), Princeton Public Schools (PPS) is undergoing a year-long “teachable moment,” involving students at all levels and engaging the whole community in the process of renaming the school.

The culmination of the first phase of this project will take place this Friday, November 20, with a webinar panel discussion led by Princeton High School students and alumni, as they initiate a dialogue about the process of renaming and the social justice issues at stake.

A highlight of Friday’s webinar will be the presentation of suggestions and research prepared by US History I students under the guidance of social studies teacher Katie Dineen. Among the proposed new names that have arisen from school policy meetings, meetings with alumni, and conversations with the Historical Society of Princeton so far are John Lewis, Betsey Stockton, Paul Robeson, Silvia DuBois, Shirley Satterfield, Albert Einstein, Michelle Obama, John Witherspoon, and Arthur Tappan, as well as Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation, Powhatan Renape Nation, Ramapough Indian Nation, and Princeton Unified.

Emphasizing the “organic nature” of the “constantly evolving” process, Middle School Principal Jason Burr noted that other names may be added as the discussion continues. “A seventh grade student all on her own put together a compelling argument for Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” he said. “Based on her argument and the strength of her interest she has been invited to be part of the process on Friday, the only middle school representative. She stood out in the crowds and took a stand, so she’s going to be involved in this.”

To confront the problem of a school named after Witherspoon, who, though a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the sixth president of Princeton University, was also a slave owner and opponent of abolition, the PPS Board of Education (BOE) in August charged Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso with the job of mobilizing a task force to develop the renaming project.

Galasso and the PPS team have gone far beyond just changing a name. “It’s more than renaming,” Galasso said. “‘Renaming’ would not do it justice. It’s a full educational engagement project.”

The goal for Galasso and the BOE is to involve students throughout the district in coordination with the schools’ programs in racial literacy and social justice education. “The final result should evolve from the students and the community-at-large with opportunities for engagement of the whole Princeton community,” said Galasso.

The BOE resolution, passed in August, requires a permanent name to be chosen by June 2021, with the name change seen as a symbolic first step that needs to be accompanied by continuing changes in the schools’ curriculum and in the community to help eliminate racism and promote social justice.

Burr described Friday’s upcoming webinar as “an exciting venue for these kids to share their projects and alumni to share their thoughts on this question.” He continued, “The dialogue will serve as an entry point to the conversation for middle school students to be introduced to this.”

A website is being developed where students and community members can review the names being considered and “cast a vote” for a particular individual. PHS students’ projects will be linked to the website so that visitors can view presentations on the potential choices.

In the coming weeks and months, middle school students will work in teams developing arguments in favor of particular names. The teams will prepare short Ken Burns-style slideshow documentaries, presenting their findings and reasoning first to classmates, then to the Princeton Unified Middle School community and interested members of the larger community, and later to fifth graders now in the elementary schools.

“The fifth graders will be the next group that comes here and the first sixth graders under the new name,” said Burr, describing “the structure by which we have older kids bringing the younger kids into the conversation.”

Highlighting the hard work and leadership of Dineen and PHS Educational Media Specialist Jennifer Bigioni, Burr added, “They have created a space for our ninth grade students to really engage with this important civics lesson. Friday’s discussion is going to unite PHS students and alumni in this important dialogue.”