Naming a school is anything but elementary.
The choice should stand out, but not too far. Make a statement, but not too bold. Be unique in an ordinary way.
With the state of Maryland ladling out buckets of school construction money over the last four years and more than 20 schools in the planning pipeline, there will be a lot of scrambling in communities to come up with the perfect combination of words that mean everything - and nothing.
Principals of new schools say few issues generate such intense community feelings.
"It is emotional," says Carole Goodman, principal of the new James Hubert Blake High in Montgomery County. "It is what kids call themselves, what they wear on their T-shirts."
School boards around the state have attempted to inject civility into the process by adopting naming policies. Anne Arundel County frowns on honoring the living. For four years, Montgomery County banned the names of white men.
Sometimes, the policy works and controversy is avoided. Take Montgomery, which has built more schools in the last decade than any other jurisdiction, including three high schools this year.
People in Germantown last fall chose the name of their new high school from a short list: Black Rock (a nearby historic site), Carl Sagan (recently dead) and Northwest (geography).
In fact, the new school isn't the most northern in the county or the most western. As a matter of fact, Principal Edward Shirley acknowledges, the name Northwest is "kind of a stretch."
However, Northwest it was, the 3-1 winner in a community straw poll.
"It's not the most creative," Shirley says with a chuckle. "But it was clean. It was easy. It didn't offend anybody."
The same could not be said at the other nameless Montgomery high school, known in the planning stages as Northeast.
The community narrowed its choice to two late Maryland artists: jazz legend James Hubert "Eubie" Blake and Muppets creator Jim Henson.
Henson won a straw poll, forcing Principal Goodman to fend off jokes about "Muppet High." But just before the name became official, the Henson foundation declined the honor.
Goodman says despite the last-minute switch, she was pleased with the outcome.
Until, that is, someone pointed out a potential nickname for the school: U-B High.
"So we go by Blake," says Goodman.
No wonder a third Montgomery high school kept its old name when it moved to a new building.
Anne Arundel County officials faced a dilemma four years ago when local sentiment clashed with school policy.
Neighbors in the Parole section of Annapolis wanted to rename their elementary school to memorialize Walter S. Mills, a local civil rights pioneer and principal of the school for more than 40 years. The problem was, he was only recently dead, and the county requires a three-year waiting period before someone deceased can be honored.
After some throat clearing and serious hand-wringing, the Board of Education decided to waive the waiting period. Sort of. Rather than completely rename the school, Mills' name was grafted on, creating the roll-off-your tongue moniker: Walter S. Mills Parole Elementary School.
Perhaps the best way for a community to start the name calling is with a list of what's already in play in Maryland's more than 1,300 schools.
Looking for direction? "North" or "Northern" show up 35 times in school names, followed by "South" or "Southern" at 17 times.
It's more popular to be "Old" (eight times) than "New" (five).
Rocks are the most popular natural feature found in school names, followed by forests, lakes and springs. Oak and pine often help build a decent name, but rarely maple. Four schools have hung out a cedar shingle.
Colonels (four) are more popular than generals (three) - if you don't count Meade and MacArthur, who lost their ranks and first names when they gave their names to Anne Arundel schools. Somehow, doctors (10) outranked both.
Seven schools are named for writers, six for presidents, four for ,, astronauts - none of them the Mercury 7 - and two for Hall of Fame baseball players (Roberto Clemente and Walter Johnson).
What, then, does this suggest as the ideal name for the next Maryland school in search of an identity? Simple: Dr. John "Rocky" Thomas Old North Oak School.
What's in a name?
The people behind some Maryland school names:
* George G. Kelson Elementary, Baltimore. Mortician and pillar of his church who buried needy neighbors for free.
* Richard Montgomery High, Montgomery County. Revolutionary War general killed in the storming of Quebec City. He gave his name to the county, but never set foot in it.
* Robert Moton Elementary, Carroll County. Author and educator who succeeded Booker T. Washington as president of Tuskegee University. Original Moton school was all-black.
* Gen. John Stricker Middle. Baltimore County. Commanded troops at the War of 1812's Battle of North Point.
* Montgomery Blair High, Montgomery County. President Lincoln's postmaster general, who lived in Silver Spring and whose home was burned down by Confederates.
* George Cromwell Elementary, Anne Arundel County. Ferndale landowner, "gentleman, humanitarian and good neighbor," says the school plaque.
Pub Date: 11/15/98