The name of Robert E. Lee sits above school entrance

In this Missourian file photo from Aug. 26, 2017, the name of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, hangs over the entrance of Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School on Locust Street. Activists around the country have toppled Confederate memorials in a debate about the importance of these relics.

A name change may be coming to Columbia’s Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School, which was officially named Robert E. Lee School when it opened in 1904.

Members of Lee’s school board — consisting of parents, teachers and Lee’s principal, Ed Elsea — voted to request a change of the school’s official name during a meeting Thursday, Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.

Debbie Rodman, Lee’s Autonomous School Board president, wrote in an email “concerned parents and community members” asked for a name change.

The motion the board adopted Thursday read: “The Lee Expressive Arts Elementary Autonomous School Board, working to provide a more inclusive environment, requests the Board of Education begin a name change process for Lee in the next few months based on our belief that the current name no longer supports the objectives of the school.”

Jonathan Sessions, a member of the district’s board who attended Thursday’s meeting, said the renaming process would involve forming a committee and engaging stakeholders to make a recommendation for a name change. Those present seemed one-sided, he said.

“It appears anybody that expressed an opinion expressed an opinion of being interested in a name change,” Sessions said.

Recently, cities across the country have considered removing statues of Confederate figures. Hundreds of people marched with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the city council’s attempts to remove a statue of Civil War General Robert E. Lee, according to the Associated Press.

Three months before, a statue of Lee was removed in New Orleans, according to CNN. And, days after the Charlottesville protests, Baltimore removed statues of Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, according to The New York Times.

Rodman said board members’ wish to change the school’s name predated recent events.

“The Lee community has been interested in a name change for long time,” she wrote in an email.

Rodman said about 50 people attended the meeting Thursday.

The district’s board must approve any formal name change.

“Names may be changed when a specific program or theme the facility was named for changes, when the current name no longer supports the objectives of the facility, or due to additions or renovations to an existing facility,” district policy states.

In general, the name of a district facility must follow these guidelines: “The name should be easily identifiable with the school, the names of living people are prohibited and individual parts of a school building or campus should not be named separately from the total school complex.”

Lee is a lottery school, which means it emphasizes a specific area of study. Lee is also an autonomous school, which means it has freedom with its programs, curriculum and spending, Baumstark said.

It could not be clarified Friday whether the name change applied to the school or the building.

About 30 years ago, the school’s name was changed to reflect its focus on expressive arts, and the “unofficial adoption” of the current name — Lee stands for Learn, Explore, Express — began, Baumstark said.

During the school’s transition, “everything that could be removed was removed. The mascot changed,” Baumstark said. “Everything that you see in the building now is reflective of Lee Expressive Arts Elementary School.”

Something that couldn’t be removed was the etching in stone of the school’s official name, Robert E. Lee School, on an archway above an entrance to the facility.

“(Lee) is listed as a historic property, so we’re looking into what restrictions that has as far as modifications for the building,” Sessions said.

Robert E. Lee isn’t commonly brought up in classrooms at the school, Baumstark said.

“(Students) don’t learn about (Robert E. Lee) in the context of, ‘You’re in the Robert E. Lee building,’” she said.

Rather, she said, they are taught about Lee in the context of the history of the Civil War, just as at other district schools.

Lee is one of the next district schools to be renovated, Baumstark said.

Baumstark said the board leadership still has to decide whether the name change request will be an item on the agenda of its next meeting, which is Sept. 11.

“(Lee) is an amazing school, the most inclusive, diverse building we have,” Baumstark said. “Everyone is focused on enhancing the arts mission that that building has.”

Supervising editor is Sky Chadde: news@columbiamissourian.com, 882-7884.

  • Hi! I'm an education beat reporter for Fall 2018, and I'm a senior studying print and digital news. Please provide me with any feedback, questions or tips you have –– my email is kyle.lahucik@mail.missouri.edu and my phone number is 708.359.9917.

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