St. Paul Elementary School Changing Name to Honor Obamas

Emily Johns, Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, May 1, 2009

A St. Paul elementary school has voted to officially change its name to “Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary,” pending approval of the school board.

Webster Magnet Elementary is piloting a service learning program this year that the school board is supposed to officially approve later this month. The school wanted a new name to reflect its new focus, so the site council made up of parents and community members put the Obama name and “Webster Service Learning Elementary” on the ballot for the school community.

Ballots were cast on Thursday by students, staff, and community members, and when they were counted this morning, the Obama name came out on top. The final tally was 526 to 328.

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According to school board policy, new names of schools, programs, mascots and logos “shall reflect the diversity of the district,” and all name changes need to be approved by the school board, “in consultation with the school community.”

The school board plans to vote on the school’s program change and name change at its meeting on May 19.

Webster is not the first school in the country to change their name to honor President Obama. Ludlum Elementary School on Long Island in New York decided to name itself “Barack Obama Elementary School” in November, and a handful of schools nationwide have followed suit.

St. Paul school board member Tom Conlon, the board’s sole Republican, said he plans to vote against the name change. He thinks naming schools after politicians–Republican or Democratic–should come at the end of a politician’s career, or even life, and pointed to “Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary” in downtown St. Paul as an example.

“Look at what happened in Anchorage,” Conlon said. “They named the airport after [former Republican Sen.] Ted Stevens, and then he got indicted. When this is happening just three months into office, it just seems premature.”

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Focusing on service

Obama won the school’s mock election in November by a landslide, and his election as the country’s first black president means that in the school where three-quarters of the students are black, “a lot of people are happy,” third-grader Tiera Abdullah said, while helping run the voting precinct in the school’s media center this week.

But that’s not why the school was drawn to the name, Simon said.

Simon brought the service learning focus to the school this year, her second full year at the school. The school was one of the nation’s first magnet schools in the 1970s with an “enrichment model” where students could pick between dozens of different enrichment programs they would take during the day.

But by the time Simon arrived, it was hardly a magnet school at all, she said, with programming no different than any other St. Paul elementary school.

Service learning provided a chance to set the school apart, and teach kids how to lead a life of service.

“Both the president and the first lady have a message of service,” said Simon. “Not only do they talk the talk, but walk the walk.”

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When the vote totals were parsed, Obama won the student and parent vote, but the 159 community and staff members who voted favored keeping the Webster name by 57 to 42 percent.

The school name has been around since the 1880s. The school is named after statesman Daniel Webster.

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