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Mixed feelings on renaming Pioneer Elementary

Opinions were split on whether to rename Pioneer Elementary School during a recent Suffolk School Board public hearing at City Hall.

Six people wrote letters that were read during the Nov. 9 public hearing, and another seven people spoke in person, including former board member, councilman and principal Enoch Copeland, former board member Thelma Hinton and current Holy Neck Borough Councilman Tim Johnson, who represents the area around the Pioneer Elementary.

As it was soliciting feedback from the public to deliberate on at a later meeting, no board members made public comments.

Board member Tyron Riddick first brought up the subject of renaming the school at its Oct. 8 meeting, saying he had received a letter from some residents about renaming it Southwestern Elementary School. Riddick has called the renaming of Pioneer to Southwestern “a way to restore over 94 years of rich history for the people in that end of town.”

Board Attorney Wendell Waller said there are two parts to renaming school facilities — seeking public input and appointing a citizen committee. Board policy states that public input is mandatory, but having a committee is not.

Pioneer Elementary, which opened in 2014, began with students from the former Southwestern Elementary as well as 16 from Booker T. Washington Elementary and 24 from Elephant’s Fork Elementary.

In June 2013, the board at the time voted 4-3 in favor of naming the school Pioneer Elementary, with Copeland, current board member Dr. Judith Brooks-Buck and Lorraine Skeeter preferring to name the school Southwestern Elementary. Then-board members Phyllis Byrum — the current board chairwoman — as well as Linda Bouchard, then-chairman Michael Debranski and Diane Foster, voted in favor of the name change.

Those writing and speaking in support of the name change this week wanted it done to recognize the role it played in educating Black students in southwestern Suffolk while remembering its educational roots. Others said it was the recommendation of an advisory committee at the time to name the school Southwestern Elementary.

In 1924, education began on the site of the old Southwestern Elementary when the Nansemond County Training School for Black students was built using money from Sears, Roebuck and Co. leader Julius Rosenwald, who put up seed money to pay for building schools for Black students in the rural South.

A new building was built in 1956, and eight years later, the name was changed to Southwestern High School, which graduated its last senior class in 1970. At that time, students were transferred to then-Forest Glen and John F. Kennedy high schools, with the school hosting students from grades 4 through 7.

Southwestern became a middle school in 1979 and an elementary school in 1990. It continued to house elementary students until it closed permanently in June 2014.

Copeland, a 1953 graduate of the Nansemond County Training School that later became Southwestern in its various capacities – high school, middle school and elementary school – noted the history of the Nansemond County Training School and proposed building a new elementary school in Whaleyville and renaming Pioneer Elementary to Southwestern Elementary. He said it would make an unjust situation a just one.

“My personal suggestion to the Whaleyville friends is that they need to propose a school in the Whaleyville community,” Copeland said, “and we need to bond together in helping them get this to become a reality. … Do not allow the board to say it’s not appropriate because it’s not in their 10-year plan, because COVID-19 was not part of your plan either.”

Curtis Holland, a 1969 graduate of Southwestern High School, said he was speaking on behalf of Holland Lodge #256 in supporting the renaming of Pioneer Elementary to Southwestern Elementary.

He noted Southwestern’s “rich heritage” and recalled serving on its farewell committee. He said the Lodge has supported, and continues to support, the school. Sixty percent of its membership has ties to Southwestern.

“This heritage and continuation of history should continue with a name change to Southwestern Elementary School,”  Holland said. “This is my plea, to retain the integrity and rich history of Southwestern Elementary School.”

Rick Copeland, who attended Southwestern when it was an intermediate school before graduating from Forest Glen High School in 1978, noted it took 22 years to build a new school to replace Southwestern in the Holland community, saying no matter why it took so long, the new school that became Pioneer Elementary to support children in the southwestern part of the city “was right, just and fair.”

“But what was puzzling then, and remains puzzling to many of us today, why remove the name of Southwestern that is synonymous with a legacy of achievement,” Rick Copeland said.

The name Southwestern, he said, needs to be “returned to its rightful place.”

Speakers opposing the name change said it would be disruptive to current students who have pride in being a Pioneer Mustang, and would take money away from other, more pressing needs in the school division.

Jennifer McCune, who works at Pioneer Elementary and has two children attending the school, is opposed to changing the name for multiple reasons.

“Pioneer was built to replace Southwestern and Robertson, coming students from different areas of the district,” McCune said in a letter addressed to the board. “The school was not built as a replacement for Southwestern alone. Pioneer represents more than Southwestern. To name it Southwestern would ignore students from other localities.”

Adrienne Foster, in another letter, also opposes changing the name. Foster said she had attended the old Southwestern Elementary and now has a son attending Pioneer Elementary. She said Southwestern could be honored in a different way rather than renaming Pioneer.

“I have a son that attends Pioneer now, and I know that the community wants to keep the legacy alive,” Foster wrote, “but why do we have to rename Pioneer to keep the legacy, and it’s not the same building? Southwestern was a great school, and the teachers there (were) amazing, but if Pioneer has replaced two schools – Robertson out in Whaleyville, and Southwestern – why not keep the name we have for it now?

“It’s not the same school, and the kids that go there now are already accustomed to the school name and mascot and take pride in the school. We can’t just change the name for the sake of the community, keeping a legacy on something that’s not even the same school or environment, in my opinion.”

Since the school opened in 2014, the school has taken time to encourage pride in being a Pioneer Mustang, and McCune said students deserve to be able to identify as Pioneer Mustangs. Changing the name of the school now, she said, would take away funding for other needs and should be used to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Hinton, who served on the school naming committee, said she came up with the name Pioneer and said it was fair to her to come up with “a neutral name.” She said it would be unfair now to change the name of the school.

Johnson said he’s received as many phone calls on the possible renaming of Pioneer Elementary – on both sides –  as he has “in quite a while,” as a council member.

“The concerns I’m hearing … are that because the Nansemond County Training School and the Southwestern school, we want to maintain that name,” Johnson said,  “but I honestly thought that there was something bigger that we were hoping for to represent the Southwestern school and the Nansemond County Training School.

“I’m concerned that this is not really what these folks want. They think it’s what they want, and renaming that school, it should have been done seven years ago when we did it if that was the case. It’s going to squelch some of the things I thought we were going after as a community.”

He praised Southwestern and Nansemond County Training School as wonderful schools, but he also noted other former schools in the area, such as Holland High School and Holland Elementary School. Johnson said the current school was named Pioneer Elementary School because it was bringing all of the communities in that area together. He said if the board chooses to rename the school Southwestern, it will still remain a wonderful school. It’s not the school itself, but the people who fill it, that is what’s important, but he hopes there isn’t something else lost if the name is changed. He also said the school division has other priorities besides changing a school name.

“My point being, it’s just a name,” Johnson said. “I am concerned about what everybody’s talked about. … I think it’s wonderful, and if we can remember the past, so be it. But what about the present? This school that sits there today, it is a jewel. There is so much pride in that school. I don’t want to lose the name Pioneer.”