School officials raising the rainbow flag to honor its being named after Gloria Casarez. (Photo: C.C. Tellez, Lez Run Philadelphia/The Philadelphia Gay News).
By Michele Zipkin
PHILADELPHIA — In an effort to distance itself from a racist historical figure, Philip H. Sheridan Elementary School in Kensington opened this school year with its new name – Gloria Casarez Elementary. In a similar move, Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Northeast Philadelphia changed its name to Castor Gardens, after the neighborhood where it is located.
Although an official naming ceremony for Gloria Casarez Elementary School will take place in spring 2023, school officials hosted a flag raising ceremony on August 29 to honor the school’s new name. Casarez started the tradition of raising the Pride flag when she headed the Office of LGBT Affairs.
“I hope we do right by [Gloria] and her legacy,” said Awilda Balbuena, principal of Gloria Casarez Elementary.
In addition to raising the Pride and American flags, school officials and community members spoke at the ceremony, including Balbuena, Assistant Principal Julio Nunez, Casarez’s wife Tricia Dressel, Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington, Office of LGBT Affairs Executive Director Celena Morrison, and Kareem E. Thomas, managing director of credit at the Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia.
The initial conversations that led to the school’s renaming began around the time of George Floyd’s murder in late May 2020, when protests swept the country and public discourse around racism and police brutality exploded. Considering Sheridan was a Civil War Union general famous for launching brutal attacks against Indigenous people, Balbuena, Nunez and much of the school staff thought it was time for a change.
“Everything [Sheridan] stood for just goes right into the face of our mission and our philosophy where we’re including everyone,” Balbuena said. “We were able to have really open conversations about race and inequity. It snowballed. I do go all the way back to George Floyd in starting this process. It really made us look at – where are we? Who are we? Who are we representing? It was really important that we find a name and start the process of changing the name so that it does fit with who we are today.”
Casarez, who died in 2014, left indelible imprints on the LGBTQ+ and Black and Brown communities in Philadelphia. She served as the first director of Philadelphia’s Office of LGBT Affairs, where, thanks to her efforts, Philadelphia had the most expansive LGBTQ rights protections in the country at the time. Casarez helmed the Latinx social justice organization galaei, and did work around mitigating and preventing homelessness. Casarez herself lived nearby and attended the school renamed in her honor.
“I think [the name change] is important because this came from the community that Gloria grew up in and it came from the school,” Dressel said. “If you talk to the principal and the assistant principal, what they’re working to do is to really cultivate these young students as leaders, to speak out and speak up in support of diversity, inclusion and belonging, and to make sure that they’re visible.”
Not long after the initial conversations, school officials sent out a survey to student families and community members asking if they were interested in having the school’s name changed, and what name they would want to replace it with. Most people were in favor of renaming the school.
The school then had to go through an official name change process that included presenting a rationale for changing the school’s name. They got the go-ahead in November, 2021. Dozens of suggested names were reduced to four options: Acel Moore, who was a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer; Joaquin Rivera, who was a musician and bilingual counselor assistant at Olney High School; late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and Casarez.
Ultimately, over 700 people voted for the four candidates, including students, family members, staff and community members, and 46 percent of the votes went to Casarez. The school changed its name this past summer.
“It is really creating places for kids to learn about their history and learn about other histories and figuring out ways to organize for what they need, and to make the world a better place,” said community activist Erme Maula. “I really think it can represent what she represented, and what she felt was important in providing good education to kids who may not have as many resources as other kids.”
At a Philadelphia Board of Education meeting this past June, a student of Gloria Casarez Elementary shared some remarks for why he vehemently supports the school’s new name.
“Changing our school name to someone who represents our skin tone is everything we deserve,” the student said at the board meeting. “Gloria Casarez supported LGBTQ+ [people] and fought against homelessness. She lived in Kensington, went to Sheridan, and looked more like my skin tone. She was an activist, someone I can definitely look up to. It is important to change the name of the school because all of the kids in my school need a name that is more representative of them, of us.”
In keeping with the school’s mantra of fostering diversity, acceptance and inclusion, the school is awaiting new curricula for kindergarten through fifth grade that includes lessons on advocacy and Casarez’s legacy. This is thanks to Nyshawana Francis-Thompson, deputy chief of curriculum and instruction, multilingual curriculum and programs, and arts and creative learning for the School District of Philadelphia.
“The messaging is really, truly moving our entire school community and our student population, from visibility to people really feeling like they belong,” Balbuena said. “We’re excited and we can’t wait for that [curriculum] to actually land in our hands so that we can start teaching it here during our social studies period.”
Michele Zipkin is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.
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