Residents urge new school to be named after former Carver principal, but nominator sticking with civil rights leader

During the Muscogee County School Board's meeting Monday night, three residents urged the board to name the district's newest elementary school for former Carver High principal Samuel P. Charleston instead of someone with no personal connection to Columbus.

But after the meeting, the board member responsible for making such a recommendation said she won't change her mind and still will recommend civil rights leader Dorothy Height as the school's namesake when the board votes Sept. 16.

"I get what they're saying," said Athavia "A.J." Senior of District 3. "I went to Carver. I went a couple years under Dr. Charleston. His legacy is awesome. I get it, but I'm sticking by Dorothy Height."

Asked to explain why, she said, "I just think it's going to bring something new and fresh to the community. She was a visionary. She has a lot of examples to offer our children: commitment, vision, a can-do spirit. I just think we need to diversify. We've got 64 schools; I think we can spare one or two."

Senior has said nominating Height came from discussions with her constituents. She was prepared to recommend Charleston, the deceased educator and first black jury member in a Columbus federal trial, as the name for the new school. But after her recommendation was on the Ledger-Enquirer's front page last month, she said, phone calls prompted her to pull the agenda item July 15 and delay the vote. Senior said then that she was asked to consider other names and that she welcomes the public's input.

Asked on Monday what changed her mind after recommending Charleston, Senior said, "The voters' influence."

No voters voiced support for Height at Monday's meeting. Three residents -- Nathan Smith, Nadine Moore and Gloria Strode -- came to the microphone in support of Charleston.

Smith noted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Columbus and former Secretary of War Newton D. Baker is linked to adjacent Fort Benning, so Muscogee schools named after them are appropriate, he said, but Height doesn't have such a connection.

"While Ms. Height was iconic, she does not meet the standard to have a school named after her, especially at the expense of local African-American leaders who have directly impacted our school system and our city," Smith said. "This honor belongs to our own. Please do not bring shame to our local African-American heroes."

Moore said she knew Height as a sorority sister and even ate donuts and drank coffee with her, but she still favors Charleston as the school's namesake. Charleston created a virtual performing arts school before such a concept was even coined, Moore said.

"We had to learn," she said. "Your mama also was taught by Mr. Charleston, and you weren't going to let your mama look bad in front of Mr. Charleston."

Strode gave board members letters of support for Charleston.

"Whether your parents were alcoholic or preacher, he ensured that, if you were smart enough, you would get into college," she said.

Strode also listed numerous local community leaders who are "part of the Charleston legacy," such as Columbus mayor pro tem Evelyn Turner Pugh, judges Albert Thompson and Mary Buckner, board members Senior and Naomi Buckner, doctors Emory Alexander, Deborah Daniels and Price Walker and numerous educators, including former Carver football coach Wallace Davis and former Shaw High principal and former assistant superintendent Eddie Obleton.

The only board member to respond to the public forum during the meeting was Buckner of District 4.

"I'm sure Ms. Senior took a lot of time analyzing her choices," she said. "I still would like the local preference for this position."

The school, now known as New Elementary School No. 7, is being built on Benning Drive. It will replace Cusseta Road and Muscogee elementary schools, which will close and merge at the end of this school year. Freeman & Associates of Columbus and Balfour Beatty Construction of Atlanta are the joint contractors. Hecht Burdeshaw of Columbus is the architect. The Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax county voters approved in 2009 is funding the $17.5 million project.

New assistant principals

At his first official board meeting as the district's superintendent, David Lewis recommended the appointment of three assistant principals. The board unanimously approved them, although members Shannon Smallman and Cathy Williams were absent.

Christine Powell, who was school district's teacher of the year in 2009, was promoted to assistant principal at Northside High School, where she has taught since 2003. The former valedictorian at Hardaway High School is the sponsor for Northside's newspaper, literary magazine and network broadcast team.

Cathleen Heider was promoted to assistant principal at Clubview and Gentian elementary schools . She teaches at North Columbus Elementary School.

Felicia Thompson was promoted to assistant principal at Dimon and St. Marys elementary schools. She is an academic coach at Double Churches Middle School.