August 12, 2020

Planning and Discussion Move Forward on John Witherspoon Middle School Name Change

By Donald Gilpin

The movement to rename John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) seemed to gain momentum at Princeton Public Schools‘ (PPS) second scheduled session of community input on Monday night, as more than 50 people participated on the Zoom call.

Support for a name change appeared almost universal, among Board of Education (BOE) members as well as community participants, though there was  a range of opinions about when and how that change should take place.

“We appreciate the community comment and we want to move forward with the process,” said PPS Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso, pointing out that the BOE policy committee must first change the district policy on naming, and then the process of choosing a new name could go forward.

“That could happen quickly,” Galasso said, and he noted that JWMS could have a temporary generic name – Princeton Unified Middle School was suggested – during the “teachable” interim period as the community considered a new permanent name.

Suggestions for permanent names have included Betsey Stockton, who founded the first school to teach Black children in Princeton; Toni Morrison, who lived in Princeton and taught at Princeton University; Princeton actor and activist Paul Robeson; recently deceased Congressman John Lewis; local Princeton historian Shirley Satterfield; and former first lady and Princeton University graduate Michelle Obama.

At an earlier meeting, Princeton High School science teacher Joy Barnes Johnson suggested the idea of “hallways as pathways,” with the hallways at JWMS named to honor people who have impacted the community and the world in ways that reflect the values of the community.

Community members and BOE members agreed that the name change should be part of a larger process of taking action to promote social justice and anti-racism in the school and the larger community.

The BOE was scheduled to discuss the JWMS renaming issue further at its regularly scheduled meeting last night, and the policy committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday, August 13, when it could take a significant step in the process.

PPS alumnus Geoffrey Allen, who started a petition last month to remove slave-owning, anti-abolitionist John Witherspoon’s name from the school and at last count had 1,557 supporting signatures, would like to see action sooner rather than later. “Now is the time to make the decision,” he said at Monday night’s meeting.  “Why are we still in this phase having this discussion?”

  The petition states: “The town of Princeton has made clear demonstration of their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement, and Princeton Public Schools has issued multiple statements claiming to counter racism for the sake of all Black employees, students in the district, and the rest of the community. This change is imperative, as the school’s name and Witherspoon’s legacy creates a hostile environment for both the middle school and district’s racially diverse student body.”

At Monday’s Zoom session, Satterfield provided background information about the history of the Princeton schools and their names. She applauded the plan to involve the students in the selection of a new name, but urged, “In order to be involved they should know the history.”

BOE candidate Paul Johnson supported Allen in urging a prompt decision. “Enough is enough,” he said. “It’s time to begin the process of healing and reconciliation.”

PHS librarian and former social studies teacher Jennifer Bigioni expressed enthusiasm for ”a community effort to educate our students” in the process of selecting a new name.

“The center of the conversation should always be our students,” said PHS social studies teacher Katie Dineen. “It’s important that we move forward as quickly as possible with the renaming. Our students do not need to wait.”

JWMS teacher and PPS alumnus Benito Gonzalez weighed in in support of Betsey Stockton as “a great choice for the school – to honor her and honor the work of Shirley Satterfield.” He added, “We should lend our ears to her as an expert and go for it. It would be a great example to follow.”