Sunday, May 19, 2024

Superintendent Victoria Greer at the temporary site of the Vassal Lane Upper School, which is getting a rebuilt campus and due for a new name. (Photo: Marc Levy)

WANTED: Someone of sterling character, with a passion for education who inspires students to excel, perhaps a distinguished local, state or national leader, who must be of African American descent, preferably a Black Cantabrigian, as the new namesake for Cambridge’s Vassal Lane Upper School.

Cambridge Public Schools and the School Committee set a high bar last week as they announced a process to rename the Vassal Lane Upper School.

The school is named for the Vassall family, which was prominent in Cambridge in the 18th century. Its wealth was built on profits from enslaved labor on plantations in Jamaica and in their Cambridge and Boston homes, and committee members have said it’s important to undo that racist past. In a renaming, “it would feel like a slight not not to acknowledge the black history tied to the Vassal name,” vice chair Rachel Weinstein said in October, initiating the search to unanimous agreement.

A school’s name should have “educational significance or inspiration,” and may honor “physical locations; geographical areas; distinguished local, state and national leaders whose names will lend dignity and stature to the school; or significant or pertinent events,” according to a school-naming policy adopted by the committee in May 2018.

The committee has “lots of ideas of who we want to honor,” Weinstein said in October, though members have not spoken publicly of their preferences.

One proposal being publicly discussed is to name the school after Darby Vassall, who had been “enslaved by the Vassal family” and “became a civil rights activist and advocate for universal education,” Weinstein noted on her website.

The process ahead

The district had a Dec. 31 deadline to describe a renaming process. On Jan. 13, superintendent Victoria Greer asked for more time to engage students and staff, said Sujata Wycoff, the district’s director of communications. An extension was granted until Feb. 7. Greer said she sent a renaming process and timeline proposal that beat the new deadline by about a week.

“All students and staff at VLUS learn about the history of the Vassal family and the school’s name in February, followed by exploring how buildings, schools and other municipal structures are named for people and what characteristics they think should be elevated when naming a school,” Greer said, explaining the timeline.

A small set of the school’s students will propose people that embody these characteristics and present a short list of names to the community in April, Greer said. School families and community members may participate in a “parallel process” during the semester.

The school’s community will review the list and the reasons for each person’s inclusion, and a select group of students and staff will present recommendations – in writing and possibly in person – to the School Committee on June 6.

The district is “open to any feedback” on the renaming process, Greer said.

School Committee decides

Member David Weinstein (no relation to Rachel Weinstein) suggested that coordinating with city plans to rename streets and buildings would ensure transparency during the process and that student and community expectations are clear. “I think it’s critically important that we have that student input and that community input,” David Weinstein said. “I just don’t want to mislead anybody about where the decisions can be made.”

“At the end of the day, we will be turning over a list and then the School Committee has the right and the responsibility to then decide what to do from there from that point forward,” Greer said. 

The committee should schedule first and second readings – required during deliberation of policy changes – when the school’s community submits its recommendation, so the broader community has a chance to weigh in, Rachel Weinstein said.

The building-naming policy adopted in 2018 calls a naming “an important matter that deserves thoughtful attention.”

“Personal prejudice or favoritism, political pressure or temporary popularity should not be an influence in choosing a school name,” the policy says.