What's In A Name? Milwaukee School Monikers Signify Classroom Culture

Apr 28, 2017

Why are so many schools in Milwaukee named after streets? That’s our Bubbler Talk question for the week, submitted by Sarah Neilsen. Seems like a pretty straightforward topic – but as it turns out, there’s quite a complicated history behind the answer.

“Naming of schools has always been a challenge in Milwaukee, and at times a controversial one,” says Steve Baruch, a retired MPS administrator.

“The first Milwaukee schools were named and numbered by the ward in which they were located,” Baruch explains, citing the book Our Roots Grow Deep, by William Lamers. “However, this got to be complicated, because they kept on changing the names of the wards. So, what you have is a situation where schools were named and renamed.”

To untangle the naming debacle, MPS decided to forego the whole numbering system. As new buildings joined the district, the school board voted on their names.

Historic photo of Milwaukee's Auer Avenue School, which opened in 1901.
Credit Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library

Now, we have a few different kinds of monikers. Some schools are named after their location: Clement Avenue School, Auer Avenue School. Others are named after their “specialties” – such as German Immersion School or Milwaukee High School of the Arts.

A handful are even named after historic figures. That’s where things have gotten murky in recent years.

In 2011, budget cuts meant the Milwaukee School Board had to consolidate a few schools – and pick a new title for the combined facility. The name they had in mind: “Barack Obama K-8 School.”

There was just one problem. MPS has a policy on the books that schools can only be named after a person if that person has been deceased for 10 or more years. At the time, not only was Barack Obama still alive – he was still the president.

This concerned board member Bruce Thompson.

“I do think that this sort of puts the naming of the schools into current political issues,” Thompson told his fellow board members in March 2011. “My fear is that we set a precedent, we’ll have a bunch of Scott Walker schools out in Waukesha County!”

“I think it’s also important that parents of all political persuasions feel that MPS is a comfortable place for them, the same way we do with religions and everything else,” Thompson added.

The Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education is located on North Sherman Boulevard in Milwaukee.
Credit Rachel Morello

The board eventually voted to waive district policy, and approve the name “Barack Obama School of Career and Technical Education.” The board has taken similar action to name schools after Marvin Pratt, the former Common Council president, and Benjamin Carson, the former brain surgeon and current U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction has rules in statute for naming school districts, but no equivalent policy exists for individual school buildings.

So why does any of this matter? What’s in a name, anyway?

To find the answer, I spoke with one of my favorite educators: my mom.

Fun fact: I was homeschooled in fifth grade. My mom taught me for a year, and she did the same thing for my four younger siblings.

"The name of a school can represent what everyone's opinion is of that person. Names are important."

Something else my mom did: she let each of us name our “school.”

“I let you name your school because I wanted you to take ownership of your education, feeling like the school was something that you were creating to help yourselves learn,” she explains.

In case you were wondering, we kids had some pretty interesting choices for our school names. I picked “Rachel’s Institute of Excellence in Learning” – my mom let me hang a sign emblazoned with the title in our front window, right next to the neighborhood watch sign. My sister chose “Mel’s School of Fun,” which suited her personality. And my 12-year-old brother selected “Joe’s School of Fun and Recreation Time” – you can figure out the acronym.

My mom let him get away with it anyway.

“Part of learning should be fun, and I wanted him to feel like school was fun!” she laughs.

I may be biased, but I think my mom makes a good point. To an extent, names reflect identities. And for schools – that can say a lot to potential families.

“For a kid, your last name, your first name, surnames – I mean, names are significant,” she says. “So the name of a school can represent what everyone’s opinion is of that person. Names are important.”

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