Process for renaming Lee Middle School kicks off in Silver Spring

Process for renaming Lee Middle School kicks off in Silver Spring

Namesake's support of segregation triggered a review

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Sarah Sirgo, MCPS’ director of learning, achievement and administration, speaks to a group of community members on Wednesday night at Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring.

Caitlynn Peetz

A Silver Spring middle school, named after a prominent Maryland politician and founder of Montgomery County’s Planning Department, could have a new name in 2022.

In February 2019, after coaxing from community members, then-County Council President Nancy Navarro penned a letter to the school board urging it to consider renaming Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School because its namesake was a segregationist.

A little more than one year later, approximately 40 people gathered in the Lee cafeteria on Wednesday night to discuss the origins of the school’s name and potential changes.

Lee is credited with creating the first land use and zoning system for the county. But historians say he purposely attached racially restrictive policies prohibiting African-Americans from buying or renting homes in subdivisions, according to county reports. Black people could only live in the suburbs if they were domestic servants, and the policies blanketed the Silver Spring area, forcing minorities to live elsewhere.

Col. E. Brooke Lee was an “unrepentant segregationist up until the bitter end,” according to county historians. He died in 1984.

“His racially restrictive policies had an impact, not only at the time, but to this day,” said Sarah Sirgo, MCPS’ director of learning, achievement and administration. “… That’s the big area of concern. He held some very strong beliefs and he was very public about those.”

Bruce Lee, a descendant of E. Brooke Lee who lives in the area, said in a statement last year that the family understands and supports renaming the school. Bruce Lee is president and CEO of a real estate development company in Silver Spring.

Lee Middle School is one of the more diverse schools in the county, with a student population that is 60% Hispanic, 26% black and 8% Asian. That diversity, school officials said, is a driving force for community members pushing to rename the school.

Brigid Howe, parent of a third-grader who will be a student at Lee in 2022, was one of the main advocates who pushed for the renaming. She said Wednesday that she is ecstatic to see the process moving forward.

“I was stunned to think that a school that is 95% kids of color was named after someone who thought they should be educated separately,” Howe said. “It seemed disrespectful and unfair. … It’s time and I’m so glad it’s happening.”

The school board has a policy addressing the naming of school facilities that says “it is preferred” that school facilities be named after “deceased distinguished persons who have made an outstanding contribution to the community, county, state or nation.” The board is advised to give strongest consideration to names of women and minorities.

The school district has launched an online survey for community members to submit ideas for names for the new school. Then, the school board will recommend four name options for consideration by a committee of community representatives. That committee will list the options in order of preference, according to the policy. It can provide up to two additional naming options.

Some community members are already offering their opinions.

Howe said one of her preferences would be to name the school after Katherine Johnson, a NASA mathematician who died this week at 101 years old. She was credited with making the calculations that helped Americans land on the moon in 1969.

In a letter to the school board on Monday, community member Jenn Sawin also proposed naming the school after Johnson.

“Katherine Johnson represents so much that E. Brooke Lee was not,” she wrote. “A precocious student who finished college at an age most children finish high school, who wasn’t even offered the chance to enroll in any local high school in her community, who earned her way up, and whose determination insisted that her race and gender would not limit her achievements. … She would be an excellent inspiration and role model for the students of Montgomery County.”

Last year, at-large school board member Jeanette Dixon said a possibility for a new name could be to honor Josiah Henson, a former Montgomery County slave who fled to Canada with his wife in the early 1800s on the Underground Railroad, according to county history.

After his escape, he helped establish the Dawn Settlement, a community for refugees from slavery, and published his autobiography. His autobiography later became a “key source” for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a widely known abolitionist novel.

Construction of a new school

The school’s renaming would coincide with the completion of a new school that will be built to replace the current building.

Lee has been described by community members and local officials as having deteriorating conditions. Last year, some parents called for the school to be closed until it is rebuilt.

In January, the school board approved a $60 million project to build an entirely new facility on the southwest corner of the property, the space farthest from the current school on site.

The location will minimize disruption to students’ learning as classes continue in the current building while the new one is under construction, according to project plans.

The new 178,000-square-foot building will include 27 general classrooms, six science classrooms, physical education space, arts and music rooms, a school store and a health suite. Space will be set aside for a future addition to include more classrooms, science labs and offices.

The project will increase the school’s capacity from 727 students to 1,008. Later expansion would make room for an additional 200 students.

Once the school opens in 2022, crews will demolish the existing school, a process the staff anticipates will be completed in 2023.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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