Just 5% of Philadelphia schools are named after women

Only a third of those have women of color as a namesake.

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Avevnue

Julia De Burgos Elementary on Lehigh Avevnue

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
michaelawinberg-2020-2

Philly’s public and charter schools are named after a wide assortment of people. The namesakes are founding fathers and former governors. They’re astronauts and Civil War generals, architects and horticulturists.

Despite the varied backgrounds of these namesakes, most of them look the same. A Billy Penn analysis revealed that a vast majority of Philadelphia schools are named after white men.

Out of 345 public and charter schools, 193 are named after men. Women? 18 are named after women.

There’s North Philly’s Mary McLeod Bethune School, named for the National Council of Negro Women founder and civil rights leader. Laura H. Carnell School in Oxford Circle takes its name from Temple University’s first-ever dean. Julia Ward Howe Elementary in Fern Rock honors the Civil War suffragist and abolitionist.

Altogether, schools named after women make up 5% of Philly’s total.

This gross imbalance isn’t that surprising, since the School District of Philadelphia was founded in 1818, when white men ruled much of American society. Many schools were named even before that, centuries before equal rights for women or people of color even entered the national conversation.

Studies have shown representation matters in schools, but most of the data focuses on the importance of having people of color as faculty. There’s not a lot of research on the impact of a school’s name on its students.

In Philadelphia, where the population that’s nearly 45% Black, just 12% of schools are named after Black people — and 3% are named after Latinx people.

Overall, 160 schools are named after white people. (There’s even representation from historical figures known for genocides.) And of the 27 schools named for people of color, only six are women.

The same phenomenon plays out in other American cities, too. Washington D.C.’s schools, for example, are named for white men far more often than anyone else — with most of the namesakes being former commissioners or elected officials.

In 2002, the Los Angeles School District sought to reopen about 100 schools — and along with the educational influx came a daunting task: Naming them all.

“It is both a blessing and curse to have all these opportunities to name schools,” said school board member Bennett Kayser. “It’s a blessing we are opening all these new schools, but it can be a curse because a naming can be divisive within and between communities.”

In the end, they went with a combo of standard and nontraditional, with everyone from Robert Kennedy to Carlos Santana getting a nod.

In Australia, the Department of Education in Victoria has a specific policy on naming schools, with community involvement and consideration for indigenous people living in the area built in.

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