North! South! East! West! What’s the high school name that we like best?
This is an honest question. With three new public high schools slated to open in the next few years, school districts have a golden opportunity to think outside the map.
Currently, most public high school students in the Omaha area walk through the doors of a compass direction. East or West in Bellevue. North, South and West in Millard. North, Northwest, South and Central in Omaha. Westside jazzes it up. Kind of.
It would seem preordained for Elkhorn’s third high school, set to open in fall 2020 at 180th and West Maple Road, to be called “Elkhorn North.” After all, its second high school, which opened in 2010 south of the original Elkhorn High, is “Elkhorn South.” Back then, to-be Principal Mark Kalvoda said that Elkhornites wanted a name that “is common sense.”
A district official says the name of the new school is not set in stone. A committee will select it sometime this summer and the board will approve it in September.
“We’ve always been pretty blah when it came to the names,” said Steve Baker, retired Elkhorn superintendent whose career there saw the district explode in growth. “I remember a board member once saying ‘I’m really glad we’ve done that.’ It can be a political issue with the naming of schools.”
Baker said he’s got no inside track but would put his money on Elkhorn North. But the way the Elkhorn school district is growing, he said, there could be a fourth high school in the future northwest of the unnamed third high school. And what to name that?
Compass directions weren’t an issue when school districts just had one high school. School names tended to take on the name of the town or community. Elkhorn High for Elkhorn. Bellevue High for Bellevue. Millard High for Millard. Omaha High — the first high school in the state — for what is now Central. Central, at 20th and Dodge, is the least accurate geographic school name in the city.
As communities grew and second high schools came to be, there was a certain logic to keeping the community name and tacking on a direction. When the Papillion-La Vista Community Schools chose to name its second high school Papillion-La Vista South in 2000, a district resident at the time begged for something not so ho-hum; a board member said it unified two cities and a sprawling district.
Maybe the Omaha Public Schools will come up with the most creative names out of necessity. “Northwest” and “South” are already taken for the district’s two newest high schools, slated to open by 2022 at 156th and Ida and 60th and L, respectively. OPS could go with Farther Northwest or Halfway to Millard but those lack poetry and precision.
OPS already has three high schools named for people or places (Bryan and Burke; Benson, respectively).
Besides, the district has a very specific naming process that involves a broad committee including future students and some hard rules like no naming buildings for people who are still alive — or freshly dead. (OPS says the person must have been dead at least 10 years).
Alfonza W. Davis passed those tests. The name of the Tuskegee airman, a Tech High valedictorian who became one of the nation’s first black fighter pilots in World War II, was chosen in 2012 by a committee that included parents, educators and eventually future students. Principal Dan Bartels said the adults winnowed a list of 45 names to three. Students got to weigh in for the final two.
When Davis Middle School near 130th and State opened, the name itself created an instant culture of history, character and pride, Bartels said. The aviator mascot also lent itself well to a theme. Student advisory groups are called “Take Flight.” Eighth-graders participate in a “Wing Ceremony.” The annual school award is “Spirit of an Aviator.”
“I think we hit a home run on this name,” Bartels said. “The name creates an identity. It creates the tip of the pencil in regards to writing the culture in that building.”
That said, the directional names do grow in meaning and identity. People do take pride in the parts of town in which they live and when the school names reflect that, it can be a badge of honor, as any S.O.B. (South Omaha boy) might say. Even Bartels, who is not pro-compass, acknowledged that.
“Benson says something. North says something,” Bartels said.
Statewide, compass points are more common in bigger cities. One-school towns tend to reflect the town name, said Dave Jespersen, a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Education.
“Of course, the namesake for the town was going to be the school name,” he said. “ ‘We are fill-in-the-blank, Burwell.’ ‘We are, Hastings.’ ”
Jespersen said newer schools are reflecting women and racial minorities better though most public school names of historical figures come from white men.
One of those white men was J. Sterling Morton, planter of trees, founding father of the State of Nebraska and … upholder of slavery. Morton wanted Nebraska to be a slave state. It never was. OPS board member Ben Perlman said he’s thought about pushing to strip Morton’s name off the middle school that sits at roughly 100th Street and Meredith Avenue.
“When we name schools after someone, we’re not just naming them. We’re honoring them,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable personally having a school named after someone who advocated for the state to be a slave state.”
But Perlman hasn’t pushed to take Morton’s name off because of the slippery slope of calling into review every name on every school. Would OPS need then to change Jackson or Jefferson?
Some school names reflect neither compass nor history. Elementary schools in Elkhorn invoke nature and mimic the housing developments for which they are named: Hillrise, Skyline, Sagewood. The hills are alive in Papillion-La Vista with elementaries named Hickory Hill, Carriage Hill, Golden Hills. My favorite could be Prairie Queen, which might be a front for ice cream or a Nebraska drag show. (The name actually comes from a one-room school that once stood nearby.) The Sarpy County district also reflects its military presence with schools named Patriot and Liberty.
Then there are Catholic schools whose names fall into two categories: Religion and Wallet. School names generally reflect saints, religious orders and the people who put up the funds to build them.
It’s why you get a St. Thomas More, a Mercy High and ... drumroll, please … Gross Catholic High.
“We’re very proud to be affiliated with the Gross family,” school President Dorothy Ostrowski said of Daniel and Louise Gross, who built the high school in Bellevue 50 years ago. “We feel that our school has such an outstanding reputation that people don’t take the name in any kind of negative way. It’s the name of pride.”
Maybe in Omaha. Ostrowski sometimes gets second looks when she travels, wearing a sweatshirt “where I’ve got the Gross name plastered across my chest.”
With bond issues passed to pay for the new schools, Elkhorn and OPS are like expectant parents. And this is the fun part — before things get messy once the new school comes into the world. The districts now get to shop and plan and dream of the building’s features. They get to pick school colors and a school mascot.
And they get their one shot at the school name.