The entrance of a large brick building with four white columns is shown. Above the entrance is written, "Venable."
Students at Venable Elementary School voted to rename their school, "Trailblazers." Credit: Kori Price/Collectbritain

Charlottesville City Schools wanted elder elementary students to rename their schools. Now, officials are having second thoughts.

The School Naming Committee, a group of appointed CCS administrators and staff, decided to poll students after the participants couldn’t reach a consensus on which name they wanted to present to the School Board. The students voted in October, and the results were presented to the board Dec. 1.

Not all board members were happy with the outcome.

Updates about renaming schools

“Third and fourth graders can give us their input, and we’re grateful for them,” said School Board Member Jennifer McKeever at Thursday’s meeting. “It’s not devaluing that process. It’s merely asking, among the elected adults in the room, are we making the right decision for our division for the rest of time?”

In early October, Charlottesville schools began reevaluating the names of all ten of its schools. The school board approved the motion back in 2020 but the process was delayed due to Superintendent Royal Gurley’s appointment, school reconfiguration and the pandemic.

The school board expects to go through all the elementary schools in the rest of the school year, and will begin the process with the secondary schools next August.

Venable and Clark elementary schools are the only schools named after people who didn’t work directly for the school system. Venable is named after Charles S. Venable, a Confederate officer who worked directly under Gen. Robert E. Lee. Clark is named after Brigadier General George Rogers Clark, a military officer who supported white settlers taking land occupied by various Indigenous groups. Clark also enslaved people on multiple plantations, according to Charlottesville schools.

Because Venable and Clark are the oldest schools in the division, they’re the first to be re-evaluated. The school naming committee held a community forum for both schools in mid-October.

At that time, the committee narrowed the options to two for each school: Venable would become either “Trailblazers” or “14th Street.” Clark would be either “Friendship” or “Summit.”

“The names came from staff, students and the community through a variety of conversations, surveys and other input mechanisms over the two years the committee has been formed,” said Beth Baptist, chair of the School Naming Committee.

The committee asked students at both schools to vote for one of the names or write in new ideas.

At Venable, 32 students voted for “Trailblazers,” seven for “14th St.,” with an additional 17 write-in votes for “Venable 9” and two for “All-Star Elementary.” At Clark, 33 students voted for “Friendship” and 28 voted for “Summit,” with four submitting a write-ins.

McKeever, who kicked off the board’s conversation, said she worries the name Friendship holds a somber spirit within the community.

“I want a name that can represent a big, positive image. I don’t think Friendship alone does that for an academic environment,” said McKeever. “I would think there are additional connotations in our community. I don’t want that to be the image that Clark has to fight against.”

The board member declined to elaborate on what she meant to a Collectbritain reporter after the meeting.

Another institution in Charlottesville that bears a similar name is Friendship Court, a public housing development near downtown.

Friendship Court underwent its own name change in 2003. The housing complex was previously named after Alexander Garrett, Albemarle County’s first county clerk and the owner of at least 51 enslaved people. The Piedmont Housing Association, which purchased the development years prior, elected to change the name.

Community members questioned the school system’s change in process. Some took to Facebook to voice their frustrations.

Nobody knows who the trailblazers are. Like, hello, who’s the trailblazer? Is it Rosa Parks? Is it Martin Luther King Jr.? Who is it?”

Nola Zorc, Venable Elementary School fourth grader

One person questioned the hesitancy over the name “Friendship,” saying it seemed as if the children’s vote didn’t matter.

“Let’s keep changing the goalpost until we get what we want,” another said. “Never in a million years would I have thought this is what the CCS board would be debating.”

For two Venable fourth-graders, Nola Zorc and Lucy Spittler-Driver, the vote was a way to perform a civic duty to their community.

The girls and other classmates landed on the name Venable 9, named after the nine students who were a part of the greater Charlottesville 12, a group of Black children who were the first to desegregate schools in 1958. Charles Alexander, one of the Venable 9 students, suggested the name at a previous board meeting.

The winning name, Trailblazers, confuses the two girls.

“It doesn’t really help because, like, nobody knows who the trailblazers are,” said Zorc. “Like, hello, who’s the trailblazer? Is it Rosa Parks? Is it Martin Luther King Jr.? Who is it?”

Spittler-Driver believes the name Trailblazers would water down the effect the Venable 9 had in the city’s history.

“I think the Trailblazers could be us, but I would think more of Venable 9 because it’s very much different,” she said. “And it would be easier because we don’t have to get used to a totally new name.”

To vote was an honor, said Spittler-Driver. She remembers the little “I Voted” sticker she got from her parents when they voted. It was nice to be an active participant this time, rather than an observer.

“I actually got to make my own decision,” said Spittler-Driver.

The school board is set to vote on the name changes on Jan. 5. Because Venable had a clear winner among students, board members will simply be asked to approve the name “Trailblazers,” Baptist said.

The margins on the Clark vote were smaller, so the board has asked for more community input on that name before the January vote.

I'm Collectbritain's education and families reporter. Reach out to me by email or on Twitter. Also, subscribe to our newsletter! C’mon, it’s free.