Board of education settles on ‘Princeton Middle School’ for new name of Walnut Lane school

Princeton Middle School will be the new name of the school on Walnut Lane that was formerly the John Witherspoon Middle School. The temporary name since August of 2020 has been the Princeton Unified Middle School.

Last summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew stronger in the area, a group led by Geoffrey Allen, a Black alumnus of the school district, called on the school board to change the name of the school because of John Witherspoon’s legacy as a slave-owning, anti-abolitionist.

During the academic year, students at the middle school researched potential alternative names for the school and voted on their favorites, which included the names of local and national figures, as well as non-person names. The finalists were: Albert Einstein Middle School, Elizabeth Stockton Middle School, John Lewis Middle School, Michelle Obama Middle School, Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation Middle School, Paul Robeson Middle School, Ruth Bader Ginsburg Middle School, Shirley Satterfield Middle School, Princeton Community School, and Walnut Lane Middle School.

Last month, middle school principal Jason Burr recommended to the board of education that a non-person name be chosen for the school. Students and staff voted on five non-person names using a ranked voting system. “Princeton Middle School” received more votes from students than other top contenders like “Princeton Community Middle School” and “Walnut Lane Middle School.” Local and national figures who were considered for the school renaming will be honored with a permanent display in a hallway at the school.

The school board voted 8-1 Tuesday night for the name “Princeton Middle School.” A few hours prior to the actual vote, the board issued a press release about the name selection meeting, including a note that the name would probably be Princeton Middle School.

During the meeting, board Member Dan Dart cast the lone “no” vote for the name, noting that staff members voted for Princeton Community Middle School as their top choice. “I think we should go with the staff choice at the middle school level,” Dart said.

Board member Dafna Kendal said Princeton Middle School was “the most common sense” name. “My concern was always how the kids felt about it,” she said.

Before the vote, some residents urged the board to reconsider naming the school after local resident Shirley Satterfield, and questioned the naming process.

“What happened to the vote put to residents when Shirley won the vote? The board should understand the decision not to accept the vote from residents, and understand how it feels to Black citizens of Princeton, whose input and will were so easily set aside by a board that lacks diversity,” said Satterfield’s daughter, Dawn Collins, who accused the school board of making an offensive decision and inflicting more trauma on Black residents by ignoring their voices, when the point of the renaming was to cure the trauma caused by the former name. “The dismissal of the vote (for Satterfield) is a local manifestation of what we are seeing on the national scale,” Collins said. “A free and fair vote citizens of Princeton – usurping that for a neutral name instead – is unfortunate and disappointing.”  

Board President Beth Behrend asked Superintendent Barry Galasso to correct the information in the statement by Collins.

“It was not a vote by the community, it was a poll by the community,” Galasso said. “The leading vote getter from the poll from community was a non-specific name, thirty-some percent.”

Resident Andreas Winawer-Wetzel said there was a campaign for Satterfield in the community and people wanted the school renamed for someone significant in the community who is Black. “A picture in the hall is not the same at all,” he said.

Resident Hinda Winawer questioned why the school board didn’t go with just naming the school after a human, and why naming the school after a person wasn’t an option presented last month again. “Quite frankly, it does feel a little like Princeton is whitewashing history like the rest of our country,” she said, calling the decision profoundly and grievously disappointing.

The Rev. Lukata Mjumbe, pastor of the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, said about 60 percent of the people he talked with on in the neighborhood knew Satterfield and supported the idea of naming the school after her. He said naming the school after Satterfield would have been a wise and moral decision. Mjumbe was cut off by school board member Jean Durbin, who was keeping time and limiting speakers to three minutes.

Resident Jennifer Cohan called a presentation about the naming the previous month a sham, and said the district was not acknowledging that the movement to change the name was started by a Black mother and a white Jewish mother. She also accused the district of ignoring Black residents “historically and in the present.” She said the multiracial coalition that signed a petition calling for the name to be changed didn’t want a generic name for the school. “You’re not listening to Black Princeton residents,” she said. She also chided Durbin for cutting people off.

Behrend said the school board has been talking about the renaming for almost a year, and that it was time to take a vote.

Burr joined the Zoom meeting during the discussion and said the non-person choice was the winner in the student vote, as well as the staff and community polls. He said kids also ranked John Lewis very highly and Shirley Satterfield received 19 percent of the votes for a person. “The thing I resonated on – there were people who spoke strongly for different individuals,” Burr said. “Then this voice was asking, maybe we don’t pick a specific person.”


  1. I don’t have an opinion on the new name, but I do find it unsettling to see the board yet again set aside the perspectives and wishes of the residents. They seem to think we’re a mild nuisance rather than their constituents. More and more, I get the impression that local politics in this town is all about upward mobility in the NJ Democratic Party — rather than about democratic representation.

  2. Pre Menstrual Syndrome for the win! Imagine how psyched the tweens will be to be wearing a shirt with PMS on it! Wow. Perhaps not completely thought through?

  3. It’s really too bad they are walking away from the chance to recognize Shirley Satterfield — a Princeton icon who has impacted so many kids!

  4. I support the School Board’s decision. Princeton Middle School is a good name, and consistent with names of Middle Schools across the country. @Cheryl — no worries, the board and community definitely were aware of the other PMS meanings. But it’s a small point — other schools and districts with the same acronym thrive just fine.

    The Board was wise to have a poll of the community, but put itself in a delicate position by having separate votes by both students and staff. The end result is each group could feel marginalized if their choice wasn’t selected. Ultimately, schools are about educating all our children and having a generic name may be the best choice for ensuring that all children feel included.

  5. Cheryl, as a student of a different PMS in another state once upon a time, you are correct – we all thought it was funny rather than embarrassing at the time, but I doubt general maturity levels have changed much in the intervening decades.

  6. You can go to one of the following schools: PDS, PCS, or PMS. Pick one… (My daughter who could be attending PMS but isn’t hasn’t stopped laughing at the name an hour after reading the article.)

  7. That’s great that you and your daughter feel good about her choice based on the initials of the school – very important criterion! FYI I went to PDS and there were plenty of names created out of that acronym that people from ages 5 -15 would find funny. I assume everyone posting here is not in that age range so to harp on something that makes so much sense — the kids go to one of four elementary schools that have a neighborhood-associated name, then come together to Princeton Middle School, then on to Princeton High School — says everything about the commenters and nothing about the process and outcome. It was a 10 month process that was thorough and took a lot of work on the part of admin, teachers, and students. Everyone from the originators of the idea to change the school name through to the BOE for voting on a sensible name deserves a lot of credit.

  8. The US Senate once debated legislation for some months and created the “Department of Public Education.” They wisely changed their minds after initially passing the legislation because the acronym DOPE made everyone laugh. A long process does not assure a good result and an acronym that leaves serious people laughing is usually a mistake.

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