Public input sought on changing name of Albert Pike school in Fort Smith

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 1,330 views 

Any decision on whether to change the name of Albert Pike Elementary School should wait until the public has the chance to research and make their voices known, said Fort Smith Public Schools board president Bill Hanesworth.

The school board tabled a resolution to rename the school during a called board meeting Monday (Aug. 10), moving the item to the Aug. 24 agenda in order to allow for public input. Members of the public can address the board during regular scheduled board meetings. There is no opportunity to public forums during special called meetings.

FSPS administration recommended to the board at the meeting that the school be renamed after the idea of changing it had been discussed and recommended by the district’s Vision 2023 Equity and Minority Recruitment teams.

“In June 2020, Albert Pike Elementary School in Fort Smith appeared in an Education Week article as one of six Arkansas schools named for a confederate figure. Documented activities and statements of General Pike as described in the attached resolution do not reflect the commitment of the school and the district as a whole to ‘treat all people with dignity and respect’ as articulated in the Vision 2023 Strategic Plan,” Brubaker read from the recommendation, noting that the districts equity and minority recruitment committees met jointly in July and the question about the name of the school was discussed.

“The consensus of the group was to recommend to the board that the campus be renamed. … If adopted, the resolution would also direct the administration to form a committee charged with developing a renaming process and timetable to submit to the Board for its consideration. The goal would be to have a new name in place for the 2021-2022 school year,” Brubaker read.

Albert Pike settled in Fort Smith in 1833 and taught school while he studied law. He opened a law practice in 1834. He later served as a general in the Confederate Army. The proposed resolution brought up that Pike joined a petition in 1858 to “expel all free blacks from the State of Arkansas” and wrote in 1868, “We mean that the white race, and that race alone, shall govern this country. It is the only one that is fit to govern, and it is the only one that shall.”

It stated those facts do not fit will with the Vision 2023 Parameter 2 that states, “We will honor relationships and treat all people with dignity and respect” and Parameter 1 that states, “We will base decisions on what is best for students.”

During the Aug. 10 meeting, board member Wade Gilkey said he had concerns the issue of renaming the school was being used to push a political agenda. Gilkey raised that question after reading comments from the teams recorded during the last meeting saying things like “Now is the time to do it. Will get some backlash. Do it now while the movement is still,” and “Time is now, wheels are moving within the city, time to strike is now.” These types of comments, Gilkey said, show a political agenda.

“When it comes to doing what is best for the students, we should leave our political agendas at the door. This is not the place to get on our soap box,” he said.

Following are other comments from the teams at the meeting where the name change was discussed showed a concern for what the school’s name said the students.
• “I wouldn’t want any family member or child to feel uncomfortable because of the school name.”
• “Opportunity to create more balance.”
• “Relatable to children at the forefront of our decision, and If Pike doesn’t reflect that, then it seems then the change needs to be made.”

During Monday’s board meeting board member Dee Blackwell said she had been approached by a parent concerned over the school’s name.

“(Renaming the school) is a very difficult subject,” Blackwell said. “We’re talking about elementary school. We’re talking about a place where our students should be safe and secure. I think that should be our priority.”

Gilkey said he did not have a problem renaming the school, but he wants to wait until later in the year to address the change.

“Right now parents, teachers, students are afraid (because of the COVID-19 pandemic.) Can we not make it until December or January (to bring up the name change)? Let’s concentrate on getting the kids back in school,” he said.

Hanesworth said he just does not want to see a repeat of how things were done five years when the mascot of Southside High School was changed from the Rebels to the Mavericks, though he noted there is often more passion when it comes to a high school than with an elementary school.

“I just want to make sure we go about this the right way and that way involves public discourse,” Hanesworth said.

Moving the agenda item to the Aug. 24 meeting will allow people to study Pike, reach out to board members and speak about the subject at the meeting. Hanesworth said he has heard from several regarding the issue, some for the change and some against it.

The FSPS Board of Education will meet at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 24 in the auditorium of the school service center, 3205 Jenny Lind. The public will be able to watch the meeting via the district’s YouTube link. Those attending the meeting must follow CDC guidelines and Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s mask mandate.

A Request to Speak form must be submitted to the superintendent’s office in writing 72 hours prior to the meeting. There is a citizen’s participation form on the district’s website under the Board of Education tab that can be used for this. The number of people allowed into the auditorium at one time will be limited, said to Nadine Brooks with the school district.