LAKEVIEW — The Chicago Public Schools Board of Education on Wednesday finalized renaming a Lakeview elementary school after abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved person who helped others escape through the Underground Railroad.
Agassiz Elementary School, located at 2851 N. Seminary Ave., will no longer be named for Louis Agassiz, a Swiss American scientist who backed theories used to defend slavery. Now the school will honor an iconic woman who instead helped to dismantle slavery.
Students, parents and staff from the school’s community celebrated the name change, which many of them advocated for over several years.
“As a BIPOC, I’m happy that our final [name] is a woman of color, and as an 8th grader, I’m happy that part of my grade’s legacy will be changing the name of our school from the founder of scientific racism to an African American woman who changed society,” student Miranda Weber said.
Agassiz opposed interracial marriage and championed a theory called polygenism, which posits that people of different races do not share a common ancestor. According to the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard University, where Agassiz taught in the 1800’s, defenders of slavery relied on polygenism to argue people of different races were genetically distinct and “slavery was a natural condition for an inferior race.”
In dropping Agassiz’ name, the Lakeview elementary school becomes the first CPS school to change its name through the district’s review process, which launched after a Chicago Sun-Times report revealed 30 schools in the majority Black and Latino district are named after slaveholders.
But Agassiz — now Harriet Tubman IB World School — won’t be last to be renamed, according to Maurice Swinney, chief equity officer for CPS.
“We know there’s curiosity from several schools,” Swinney said, but the district will focus next on updating its school renaming policy to better support those schools in the process.
“We want to take that policy and strengthen it, and we will be coming back to the board this fall after doing some engagement,” he said.
Weber explained that the process to rename the Lakeview school — a previous effort in 2017 stalled — resumed last fall in students’ classrooms.
“When my class first heard we were going to change our school’s name, we thought it would be very simple, but it ended up being very difficult,” Weber said.
Students brainstormed historical figures who represented their values as a school community. Possible names were submitted through students’ home rooms, and later voted on by the wider school community, including parents, staff and other community members. Eventually, the school voted to shortlist Tubman, NASA pioneer Katherine Johnson and civil rights leader Rosa Parks.
Principal Mira Weber praised her school’s students for their thoughtful contributions to the renaming process, and highlighted how enriching the process was to them.
“We modeled for our students what it means to confront falsehoods, oppose racism and cultivate inclusivity and empathy while teaching the importance of civic engagement,” Mira Weber said.
But the work doesn’t end there, Swinney said.
“The name change will only be cosemetic if it doesn’t improve the student experience at the school,” Swinney said.
The next steps at Harriet Tubman IB World School will include professional development for its staff, a review of the school’s curriculum to make sure it’s culturally relevant and a revamping of the school improvement plan to include the district’s equity framework, which has guided the school’s renaming process, Mira Weber said.
“To know we have touched the lives of all of our children and have the potential to touch the lives of thousands more through the work the district is doing is the greatest gift and one I will carry with me for a lifetime,” Mira Weber said.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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