Kennard Classical Junior Academy is one of St. Louis' premiere magnet schools.
Efforts to change the name of St. Louis' Kennard Classical Junior Academy over its namesake’s ties to the Confederate Army are gaining traction in the community. A Kennard alum frustrated at the lack of attention the issue has gotten from St. Louis Public Schools administrators helped create a public petition to rename the school after African American education pioneer Betty McNeal Wheeler last week. By press time it had notched more than 1,100 signatures.
Discussions about changing Kennard CJA’s name first became public in February 2015 when the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article about Kennard parent Joanna Abrams’ efforts
. Abrams had discovered that the magnet elementary school for gifted students, where her daughter was a pupil, had been named after Samuel M. Kennard, a St. Louis businessman who also served as a Confederate Army lieutenant. Abrams shared her discovery on the Kennard parents’ Facebook page and suggested a name change.
But despite discussions at the time, the name has remained. That's even though the Equity and Inclusion Committee at Kennard CJA
, a group of parents and teachers who work to ensure the school is diverse and welcoming, launched the Namesake Project, which involves identifying a new namesake.
Jean Corbett, an alumnus of Kennard and Metro High School, says she got involved after being contacted by a committee member who was dissatisfied with its progress. The member, who wanted to remain anonymous, hoped to make the issue public again. The member also suggested Wheeler would be a great choice for a new namesake.
In response, Corbett created a proposal and the petition on change.org. That led to the school's principal, Wanda LaFlore, contacting Corbett to set up a meeting. (They'll sit down this week.) The proposal also includes the suggestion of incorporating diversity training for faculty to complete through CrossRoads Anti-Racism Organizing and Training.
The school's current namesake, Samuel M. Kennard, was a prominent St. Louis businessman and the head of J. Kennard & Sons Carpet Company. Originally founded by his father, J. Kennard & Sons expanded greatly under Samuel's leadership, becoming one of St. Louis’ foremost commercial interests. However Kennard aligned with the Confederacy in the Civil War, eventually being promoted to lieutenant.
Betty McNeal Wheeler founded Metro High School in 1972. It would become of the most respected public schools in the U.S.
The petition's suggested alternative, Wheeler, founded Metro High School and helped the public school achieve testing scores rivaling those of prestigious private schools
. Former students say she created a close and inclusive environment for her students while encouraging them to have honest conversations about diversity.
Corbett was one of Wheeler’s students. She recalls open conversations regarding the Rodney King and OJ Simpson trials and other racially charged topics, where students would argue with one another about their standpoints and leave class respecting one another. “She wanted the community to be the classroom,” Corbett says. “She insisted we were a family.”
Other students also contacted the RFT
to sing Wheeler's praises.
“I am really thinking hard about how to put into words the respect and admiration and affection that I had for Betty. I don't think I can really do it justice. Betty was clearly the leader —there was never any question about who was in charge, or whose baby Metro was — it was Betty, all the way. But, nonetheless, we teachers, and the students, felt immensely respected by Betty,” Judith Chabot wrote in a heartfelt email.
But the proposal has also received pushback from teachers and students’ parents.
“So ultimately my concern is that we are creating drama amongst our own school community that even if we were able to overcome and agree on a name change, any positive momentum will be lost when it comes down to the official implementation of the name change within the bureaucracy of SLPS,” one user wrote in the Community Feedback section of the Equity and Inclusion Committee website.
“The building is named after Samuel Kennard, and that cannot be changed so this seems like an futile exercise," another added. "Instead, let’s educate the kids on his history – good and bad. His descendants recently supported the school through enrichment programs, spending their money to support our kids. We cannot erase history, but we can learn from it. So do that! Should we rename our city since it is named after a king who murdered thousands because of his religious convictions?”
A survey recently asked the school’s faculty if they thought Kennard's name should be changed, with the results showing teachers were overwhelmingly against a name change. However, Corbett claims the survey failed to provide any background information on why she and many others believe the school being named after Kennard is troubling. Had the survey been more comprehensive, Corbett believes the outcome would have differed.
She also suggests one reason some members of the Kennard community are against the change. “Resistance comes from the lack of confidence to discuss issues regarding race,” Corbett says.
A spokeswoman for the St. Louis Public School district did not respond to our message seeking comment last week.