An effort to recognize the late state Sen. Bettye Davis by naming one of the most diverse high schools in the nation in her honor may be thwarted by pushback from some in the school’s community.
Davis was the first Black woman elected to the Alaska Senate and state House of Representatives and was elected to three terms on the Anchorage School Board. As a lawmaker, she advocated for school funding, economic development and programs benefiting vulnerable Alaskans. She died in 2018.
Last year, a naming panel formed by the Anchorage municipality chose three public schools in the city to possibly name after Davis, pinpointing East High School as a top pick. Fairview Elementary and Airport Heights Elementary are also under consideration.
Though there are other options on the table, to Celeste Hodge Growden, current president of the Alaska Black Caucus and a member of the former naming panel, East High School represents the biggest honor.
“Bettye Davis was a champion of education, she was a champion of students, kids,” Growden said. “It’s really important to have something significant like a high school named after her where she dedicated much of her life.”
But while the push to rename the 1,700-plus-student high school for Davis and her legacy has gathered steam, a recent survey conducted by the district also shows that many in the East High School community — especially alumni — do not want the school renamed, according to its principal, Sam Spinella.
“The renaming of the high school is a lot more than just changing its name,” Spinella said. “East High School is the second oldest high school in the city. There’s tradition that goes along with that. There’s a lot of reputation that goes along with that throughout the state and also in the Lower 48.”
Spinella said some alumni want their children to graduate from the school of the same name. Name recognition is important for scholarships to colleges, he said, especially athletic scholarships.
Superintendent Deena Bishop will make a recommendation on which school to rename in Davis' honor to the school board during its Oct. 6 meeting, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Miller.
All three schools being considered are Title I schools. That means a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, indicating that most students are from families of lower socioeconomic means.
Davis was not a graduate of East High School. She grew up in Louisiana, moved to Alaska in 1972 and pursued a career as a nurse and social worker, first working at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute and later at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, according to a state legislature biography. She was first elected to the Anchorage School Board in 1982 and then the Alaska House of Representatives in 1990.
The Alaska Black Caucus, a nonpartisan group focusing on rights and equality for people of color, is currently spearheading much of the renaming efforts. It recently launched a petition to rename the high school in Davis' honor.
It has garnered just under 300 signatures since, said Growden.
“Because of the remarkable diversity of East High’s student body, Bettye’s residence near the school, and her representation of the area in the Alaska House of Representatives and the Alaska Senate, East High was favored as the panel’s first choice,” the petition reads.
Growden said that the district’s school curriculum falls short when it comes to the extensive history of Black people in the U.S. But naming a school after a Black Alaskan history maker could help move the district in the right direction, she said.
“This is just one way of making change,” Growden said. “Not only is the school named after her, but there’s this historical piece. Kids will learn that history.”
Several community members testified in favor of the renaming during school board meetings this month.
Still, the survey of East High School’s community shows that many alumni do not want to risk losing the academic, athletic and community reputation attached to the school’s longtime name, Spinella said.
The district conducted surveys about the renaming in all three schools under consideration, surveying students, parents, alumni, staff and general community members, Miller said. The superintendent will consider the feedback during her recommendation to the board next week, Miller said.
Spinella said East High’s survey, which was done online in an open format, was emailed to parents, students and alumni contacts and posted on Facebook. It received 1,644 responses.
Of those, 84.2% did not want the high school renamed, he said. Nearly half of the respondents were alumni, he said.
“When you change the name of a high school, put all the legacy and the history aside, we start all over again. Because, in 10 or 15 years, students will not realize that this was East High School at one time,” Spinella said.
Growden questioned the efficacy of the survey and whether it truly reached a wide swath of East Anchorage High School’s community. Neither of Growden’s daughters, both East graduates, received information about the survey, she said.
After later receiving and reviewing a copy of the contents of the survey from the high school, Growden said it is inherently flawed.
“Survey implies a well-designed set of questions distributed in a way that would reduce response bias. This should be more accurately called an informal poll,” she said. The district distributed a Google poll using email and Facebook, she said.
Information given in it did not include any details of the community process which led to the renaming proposal, she said. It also only asked for additional feedback from those who responded that they were opposed to the renaming, she said.
Spinella said it is not possible to tell how many people were sent the survey due to its open format. It did not include a field indicating the respondent’s race, he said, but it did capture the respondent’s affiliation to the school.
“Part of the name of a school is this pride that comes along with it. And when you change its name, all that history goes away,” he said. The school’s alumni include Olympic gold medalist Kikkan Randall and former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell.
The survey also included the option of a combined name that keeps “East Anchorage” in it. Spinella said 78% of respondents rejected the option.
Miller in a statement said that Bishop’s recommendation to the school board “will be based on feedback from the committee whose process started in February this year."
The school board will later vote on the superintendent’s recommendation, Miller said.
Growden said she is frustrated that it has taken so long to honor Davis. The process began during the first — and now annual — Bettye Davis African American Summit in February 2019.
“So here we are in 2020. And this question still remains,” she said.