Naming committee recommends Florida Ruffin Ridley as new name for Coolidge Corner School

This story was written for Newswriting, one of my classes at Boston University

By Grace Ferguson

October 17, 2019

The Brookline Town Naming Committee voted Wednesday to recommend the “Florida Ruffin Ridley School” as the new name for the Coolidge Corner School after heated discussion about how a group of students chose their nominee for a new name.

The town meeting was considering the students’ nominee, Florida Ruffin Ridley, who was an African American civil rights activist, suffragist, teacher and journalist born in 1861. She and her husband were likely the first African American homeowners in Brookline, according to information the School Committee provided. But some Town Meeting members and people from the community were concerned restorative justice tainted the students’ decision process.

The six to one vote took place immediately after a public hearing on three separate name proposals for the school. A motion to recommend late community member Ethel Weiss as the new eponym failed with three committee members voting in favor and four against. A motion to recommend late former Superintendent of Brookline Schools Robert I. Sperber failed unanimously with two abstentions.

The K-8 Coolidge Corner School had been known as the Edward S. Devotion School until May 2018. The Town Meeting voted to change the name following the discovery that the man after whom the school was named had owned a slave before he died in 1744. “The Coolidge Corner School” is the temporary name until a permanent name is finalized.

The school and naming committees nominated Ridley, while community members submitted the warrant articles for Ethel Weiss and Robert I. Sperber. The Brookline Town Meeting will vote on all three proposals Nov. 18.

Weiss was a well-known member of the Brookline community who ran Irving’s Toy and Card Shop until her death at age 101 in 2015. Sperber was the superintendent of Brookline Schools from 1964 to 1982 and died at 87 in 2016.

Some community members supporting the Weiss and Sperber name proposals at the Naming Committee hearing attacked the process by which Ridley was selected.

The Brookline School Committee’s process assembled a special committee of Coolidge Corner and Brookline High School students, known as the Bee-lievers in Change. The students selected Ridley from a pool of 119 names members of the community submitted. Next, the School Committee voted to recommend Ridley. The Naming Committee’s Wednesday vote was the last step before the Town Meeting is scheduled to vote to finalize the school’s name in November.

Supporters of the Weiss proposal, many of whom wore stickers on their chest with Weiss’s first name “ETHEL” and a heart symbol, complained about the role of restorative justice in the name selection process. Adults overseeing the Bee-lievers in Change said at the meeting that they taught students about slavery and African-American history as they decided on a name. Students who spoke at the hearing said they reviewed all names, prioritized names of people of color and pointed to how Brookline currently has no schools named after a person of color.

“I believe this is political correctness run amok,” Susan Halpert, an alumna of the Coolidge Corner School, said.

Joyce Jozwicki, a Town Meeting member from precinct nine, spoke for Lee Selwyn, the sponsor of the Sperber proposal, who could not attend. Jozwicki, concerned about adult influence on the Bee-lievers in Change, criticized the “opaque and clearly racially driven process through which [Ridley] was selected.”

Like other opponents of Ridley’s nomination, Jozwicki said the School Committee’s name selection was not as open to the public as it should have been. She noted how the student group’s meetings were held in private and public input was limited to name suggestions.

“We know who was at those meetings, so don’t tell me the process was good,” she said, quickly waving her hand as she left the podium.

Larry Ruttman, who submitted the Weiss proposal, said he had known Weiss personally since he was a child in the 1940s. Calling the process “deeply flawed and secretive,” he asked the Naming Committee to “turn around” and vote for Weiss instead of Ridley.

“I ask you tonight to restore balance and equity to the process,” he said.

During the committee deliberations after public comment had been closed, Ruttman interrupted a committee member who was speaking in support of restorative justice.

“Oh, for god’s sake, it’s a joke,” he shouted. “Is this democracy?”

Before public comment began, Interim Superintendent of Schools Ben Lummis noted that 90 percent of Town Meeting members had approved of the process for selecting a new school name. He said Ridley was a good nominee.

“Florida Ruffin Ridley made history,” he said. “It is time to make history by naming the school after her.”

“It was maybe not the most perfect process – this was the first time the town has gone through this – but it was a good process,” said Coolidge Corner Principal Jennifer Buller, who oversaw the Bee-lievers in Change.

Four of the Bee-lievers in Change spoke in defense of their nominee.

“It’s one thing to be a good person, it’s another to be a good school name,” fifth grader Liv Klawiter said at the hearing.

“They weren’t brainwashed,” Erica Anderson, Klawiter’s mother, said. “They weren’t spoon-fed nominees.”

Lauren Bernard, a Town Meeting member from precinct eight, worried about what might happen if the Ridley proposal fails.

“What kind of message does that send to our kids, to future students, to future kids?” she said.