When a new school is born, the place where children's minds will be shaped is often named for the nearby creek rather than a principal or president that made history.
A study released today by the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank, determined it is increasingly unusual for school names to honor people, and more common for them to enshrine natural features instead. Apparently, it's easier to name a school for something everybody already knows than a politician or teacher some people might want to forget.
School boards - who typically pick the names - seem to play it safe rather than memorializing local or national heroes.
In Florida, five schools are named after George Washington although 11 honor manatees, also known as sea cows. New schools in Arizona were nearly 50 times more likely to be named after something like a cactus than a president over the past two decades.
Although the Manhattan Institute study analyzes only seven states (and does not include Utah), some local education leaders confirm the school name trend.
"Our district shied away a few years ago from naming them after people because it became divisive and controversial," said Kathie Bone, the elementary school director in Davis School District. "So many good people, so few schools."
If anything, the choices reflect a community's priorities, said Brian Kisida, a research associate at the University of Arkansas who worked on the report.
Nationally, fewer than 5 percent of schools are named after presidents. In New Jersey, 45 percent of schools built before 1948 were named after people versus 27 percent of schools built since 1988.
"The shift from naming schools after people worthy of emulation to naming schools after hills, trees, or animals raises questions about the civic mission of public education and the role that school names play in that civic mission," said the report. "The names that school boards give to schools both reflect and shape civic values."
But it would be wrong to say that new schools never honor people in Utah. Just last August, Gearld L. Wright Elementary opened in the Granite School District honoring the former mayor of West Valley City and a teacher at Kennedy Junior High.
And it may be unfair to suggest that school boards are enamored with geographic names. The president of the board of education of Jordan School District, the state's largest, said the names the community suggests are rarely those of people. "It isn't the board per se" that's rejecting people's names, J. Dale Christensen said.
What's in a name? Maybe it doesn't make too much of a difference. Cody Henrichsen, social studies teacher at Riverton High, has his doubts.
"I think there's definitely a potential for gaining something," he said. "At the same time, I'd be even happier to pull the New York [City] thing . . . just High School No. 8. There's so many things we could worry about than simply the name."
* JULIA LYON can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8748.
Recent school namings, what they represent
* Jordan School District: Butterfield Canyon Elementary, a canyon; Midas Creek Elementary, a creek; Daybreak Elementary, a subdivision
* Davis School District: Snow Horse Elementary, a landmark; Ellison Park Elementary, a family; Syracuse High School, the city