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Wichita explores how to name its newest schools

Wichita's two newest high schools aren't under construction yet. They're just now being designed. But already there's a little problem:

"We're not sure how those schools will be named," said board member Lynn Rogers. "We're going to have to have some discussions about that."

According to district policy, high schools must have directional names such as North and South. But Wichita already has Northeast and Southeast high schools, and those are quadrants where the new schools will be built.

"We're running out of directions, so there's been some rumblings... about how we're going to solve that issue," Rogers said. "It's kind of a big deal."

Naming any new school is a big deal — and a task the district will face several times over the next few years as it starts construction on buildings approved as part of a $370 million bond issue.

Last week crews broke ground on the first school, Martin Ortiz Elementary at 33rd North and Arkansas. Rogers served on the committee that named the school, which honors Ortiz, a North High graduate and leader in Latino education.

"When you start a new school, you're building a whole new school community," Rogers said. "We always want to make sure the neighborhood is part of the overall discussion, and the name is reflective of that community as well."

There are Wichita schools named after educators, poets, inventors, presidents, senators, military heroes, civic leaders and aviation pioneers. Some are named for streets or neighborhoods.

Board policy requires elementary schools to be named for prominent local people who have died. Middle schools can be named for local, state or national figures. High schools are to have directional names based on the part of the district in which the building is located.

Some schools, such as Washington, Lincoln and Franklin elementaries, were named before the policy was in place. Heights High School, once part of a rural district, kept its name when it joined the Wichita district in 1963.

Before last week, the last new Wichita school was Gordon Parks Academy at 25th North and Grove, named in 2007 for the world-renowned photographer, filmmaker and author.

Before that, in 2003, the district named a new middle school after former district administrator Dean Stucky. A new elementary, at 29th North and Woodlawn, is named for Val Jackson, the former co-owner of Jackson Mortuary.

Rogers said naming schools is "a challenge and also a huge responsibility."

Not only are the names engraved on buildings, he said, but "You've got people reporting to those schools every day, saying those names over and over or sharing that person's story with students," he said.

"Our hope always is that those people's life stories inspire students."

The school board maintains a list of people whose names have been suggested for the renaming of an existing building or the naming of a new building. A committee decides which names should be voted upon by the board.

Carolyn Benitez, a local historian and executive director of the nonprofit SER Corp., served on the naming committee for Ortiz Elementary. She first learned about Martin Ortiz while working on a project about El Huarache, one of the first Mexican neighborhoods in north Wichita.

When the committee began considering options, "His name was the first one out of my mouth," Benitez said.

"The committee wanted to name the school after someone whose face and story truly reflect our community. Martin's does.... I sincerely believe we made the right choice."

Several schools have been named for people whose backgrounds and accomplishments may not be common knowledge. A goal in those schools, Rogers said, is to relate the namesake's story as a way to educate and inspire students.

Ortiz, for instance, spent his elementary years being jeered and bullied because he struggled to understand English. Family members recall that a teacher once penned a sign and hung it around his neck: "I am retarded," it said.

He quit school at 13 and rode the rails as a Depression-era hobo known as "Wichita." He eventually returned to Wichita and became the first Hispanic senior class president at North High. He spent the rest of his life advocating for minority student programs.

"He was a role model," said his brother, John Ortiz. "He was a teacher. It's fitting that his legacy will be this school."

The next Wichita schools to be named will be a new elementary school near 47th South and Seneca, a K-8 school in Bel Aire and a K-8 near 143rd East and Pawnee. All are set to open for the 2012-13 school year.

Two new high schools — one near Bel Aire and another in far southeast Wichita — are expected to open by 2013.

The high schools' names could remain directional but feature a street name or area instead of a compass point, Rogers said. Or the board could reconsider its policy and forgo directional names altogether, opting instead to name the new high schools after prominent people.

"Thankfully that's down the road a bit," he said. "So we have some time to consider the options."

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