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Detroit school renaming decisions go to board vote, as students get their say

A pool inside of a high school.

Along the walls of East English Village Preparatory Academy’s swimming pool are four painted stripes, representing the school colors of the current high school alongside its predecessors, Finney and Crockett high school. At Tuesday’s Detroit Public Schools Community District school board meeting, board members will vote on whether to preserve East English Village’s name or change it back to Finney High School.

Ethan Bakuli / Chalkbeat

Walk into the cafeteria of East English Village Preparatory Academy, and you’ll see a banner hanging off a staircase railing, exclaiming in the school’s maize and blue colors: “Pride of the East Side.” 

The slogan pays homage to the old Finney High School, which once stood on the same grounds near Warren and Cadieux. Finney, which closed in 2012, used the same slogan. 

That pride in the school’s history hasn’t gone away, according to Lionel Johnson, a junior at East English Village.

But among current students and staff in the new East English Village building, there’s not as much attachment to the old name, according to district surveys. So despite months of lobbying by Finney High alumni to change the name of the school to Finney, the Detroit school board is poised to vote tonight on a district recommendation to keep the East English name. 

The discussion is part of a broader effort by district officials and community members to revisit naming decisions that were made when the district was overseen by state-appointed emergency managers, sometimes without community input. Last school year, at the urging of alumni, the board approved a decision to restore the name of Northwestern High School, which had been renamed the Detroit Collegiate Preparatory Academy at Northwestern in 2013 under an emergency manager.

This year, the district is recommending that the board approve changing the name of Ben Carson High School of Science and Medicine to Crockett Midtown High School of Science and Medicine. The push to change the name came as its namesake — a renowned neurosurgeon — courted controversy during his tenure as housing secretary in the Trump administration. An overwhelming majority of students, alumni, staff, parents, and community favored a name change.

In the case of East English Village Prep — which took its name from the surrounding neighborhood — the recommendation to keep the name followed weeks of community surveys and meetings to get input from students, staff, parents, alumni, and the community. There was a stark divide. While 95% of the alumni and 85% of community members who completed the survey supported a name change, 59% of students, 67% of staff, and 63% of parents were opposed, according to a report that accompanies the agenda for tonight’s meeting.

“The sentiment among current students was clear at the community meetings and through the survey results,” the report says. “Current students are passionately against the name change. It feels contradictory to our ‘students first’ commitment to change the school’s name when the students currently there are opposed to the name change.”

Students who spoke to Chalkbeat said they’re also passionate about the school itself. They said they’re trying to build their own culture and history. 

“The name of the school fits better than the last name,” said Lionel. “It reflects the community we are in and speaks to the legacy the ’Ville has built.”

“The name of the school is connected to the identity of its inhabitants and students,” said Charles Nelson, a student at East English Village. “By changing the name, we are referring back to our previous and prehistoric and obsolete identity and everything attached to it.”

To appease Finney grads, the district said, “we can still affirm the voice of Finney alumni by dedicating a hallway or future identified location at the school to the Finney legacy through a historic walkway celebrating the Finney history and alumni.”

Finney High School first opened in 1928 and owes its name to Detroiter Jared Warner Finney, a U.S. attorney and the son of Seymour Finney, one of the prominent conductors on Detroit’s Underground Railroad. In the 1960s, the school became one of the first fully integrated public schools in Detroit. It’s that history that has former students pushing to restore the Finney name.

In 2012, then-emergency manager Roy Roberts announced a series of closures and consolidations, shuttering roughly 32 schools across the city. The district lost over 15,000 students that year, sending its enrollment below 50,000 for the first time.  

Finney and the former Crockett High School, another low-performing school on the east side, were among the schools that closed.

Janie Hubbard, a longtime volunteer for East English Village, and a former parent leader at Crockett High School, recalls how the school’s new name emerged.

On the eve of Crockett’s closure, Hubbard said, parents from both Finney and Crockett were selected to be on a panel to determine the name of a merged school that would serve students on the east side.

Amid heated debate, the district and the panel chose the name East English Village Preparatory Academy as a compromise.

The change “left a bad taste in our mouth, and a lot of alumni did not want to do anything with the school,” Keenann Knox, senior pastor of Detroit’s Impact Church and a 1989 Finney alum, said at a school board meeting last month.

“It was very political for the emergency manager — that was not voted upon but was appointed — to disappoint us and to steal our legacy and our name and to erase it,” Knox said.

But Hubbard said the name change was a way to deal fairly with the legacies of both Crockett and Finney. 

“We decided … we were just going to strip everybody’s identity,” Hubbard said. “Everybody was losing, but we wanted to give these kids a new start — a new everything — to make them happy.”

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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