Submitted by Howard B. Owens on May 23, 2012 - 5:58pm
Long before there was a John Kennedy in the White House, there was a John Kennedy in Batavia.
Before there was "Profiles in Courage," there was "Individual Instruction" and "The School and the Family."
Before PT109, there was the Civil War and a young man born in England, who moved to Iowa and joined the Union's cause.
The John Kennedy of Batavia was an educator, a veteran of the War Between the States, and a preservationist, saving the Holland Land Office from assured destruction.
"I don’t think people associate the name of John Kennedy School with the right individual," said County Clerk Don Read, an avid history buff, especially of Genesee County. "Many people don't know that the John Kennedy in the history of Batavia certainly occupies a place in education history and the history of Genesee County. Not many people of his stature have come out of Genesee County."
And that's why there's a school in Batavia with brass Helvetica letters on its brick facade that reads, "John Kennedy School."
The school opened in 1956, and now there's some talk of changing its name, perhaps to Batavia Intermediate School.
The subject came up at Monday's school board meeting and the board seems to be considering the idea.
Board President Gail Stevens said she will support whatever the community wants for the names of it schools (Jackson School is also up for grabs).
"I’m all for giving the community a choice," Stevens said. "They’re the stakeholders in the school, the parents, the teachers, the students. If the community wants change, then I'll represent the community."
While the decision to consolidate schools -- leading to the closure of Robert Morris -- was driven by financial issues, what the schools are named is purely a matter of community choice and Stevens said she didn't want to impose her viewpoint on that choice.
The issue came about, according to Board Member Phil Ricci, because a group of parents brought the issue to the board.
According to Ricci, the parents were concerned that students transferring from Robert Morris would join community schools with community identities, and potentially feel left out of the mix.
Changing school names is a matter of changing brands and getting all of the students involved, Ricci said.
"I think the primary thing to understand is that it isn't so much changing the name of the school," Ricci said. "The way of doing business, the way the schools are run, the way we're deliving educational services is being changed."
The former names no longer fit, Ricci said, especially if you consider the name of JK to be John Kennedy Elementary School.
On the district's Web site, that's the name of the school. On the school building itself, it's simply John Kennedy School.
Ricci said there is a push by some parents to change the name to Batavia School or Batavia Intermediate School.
Another option, Ricci said, one he favors, is John Kennedy Intermediate School, and some have suggested, he said, Batavia Intermediate School at John Kennedy.
Both Stevens and Ricci said the cost of a name change would be minimal, and there are no concrete plans right now to institute a name change.
The board will discuss it further at its next meeting, Stevens said, and decide what to do from there.
The idea of dropping John Kennedy caught the attention of local historians and preservationists.
The board of the Holland Land Office Museum voted Tuesday night to oppose the change.
"You would be taking away the history of the community," said HLOM Director Jeff Donahue. "The man should be honored because of the great work that he did for this area and for education in general."
Local author, localist and lover of Batavia Bill Kauffman was chagrined at the idea of Batavia once again turning its back on its history.
"Modern Batavia's besetting sin has been its disregard, even contempt, for Batavia's history," Kauffman said. "The catastrophic urban renewal of the 1960s and '70s was the most spectacular example of this. Renaming Batavia's schools would be yet another -- and wholly unnecessary -- case of the city wiping out its past and severing its connection to those who have gone before. As a proud alumnus of John Kennedy, I really hope that great little school on Vine Street retains its name."
John Kennedy was born Sept. 17, 1846, in England. He was one of 14 children. His father brought the family to New York hoping for work on the Erie Canal, but after Mrs. Kennedy heard nothing of her husband, she packed up the family and moved to Greeley, Iowa.
After the Civil War, Kennedy returned to Iowa where he became a school superintendent, soon gaining recognition for his innovative education techniques.
Kennedy spoke to educators in New York on a couple of occasions, and then the fairly new Batavia City Schools District invited Kennedy to become its second superintendent.
Over the next 23 years, Kennedy led the district, creating a number of innovations in education, such as teacher's aides and a style of teaching that offered encouragement to students rather than direct help.
In 1894, Kennedy learned that the former Holland Land Office, which had been a private residence, was going to be torn down and its bricks sold to Henry Ford for reconstruction of the building on his estate in Michigan. Kennedy started a "penny drive" to raise enough money for a down payment on the property. When he reached that goal, other community members pitched in to complete the purchase and donate the building and land to the county.
"Kennedy realized the significance of the building and because of him, we still have the Holland Land Office today," Donahue said.
Ricci said if the school name is changed, none of the history will be lost. Everything on and in the building of historical value will be preserved, he said.
"I'm fine if it's Batavia Intermediate or John Kennedy Intermediate," Ricci said. "I'm not trying to be blase about it, because I know it means something to a lot of people, but the history that goes with that school is all inside of it. It all stays. The name on the building needs to fit the new brand.
"We have three cultures in three different schools. What we call the schools needs to reflect what goes on in the schools. That doesn't mean we have to get rid of John Kennedy as the name, but possibly add to it; John Kennedy Intermediate school."
FOOTNOTE: Ricci was appointed to the board to fill a vacancy, and subsequently won a seat outright on the board. But because he came in second in the voting, he won't be able to officially vote on anything until July. As top vote-getter in the election, Gretchen DiFante assumed the vacant seat on the board.