WCSD names new buildings after local educator, Minerva Park community

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The new elementary school slated to open fall 2022 has been named Minerva France Elementary School, its namesake a Westerville native who was among the first Black women to receive a library science degree.

Meanwhile, the new middle school scheduled to open fall 2023 will now be known as Minerva Park Middle School. 

The Westerville City Schools Board of Education approved the names of the new buildings being constructed in Minerva Park at a meeting Tuesday evening.

Board President Vaughn Bell supported naming the new elementary in honor of France, “a Black woman who was extremely accomplished" and attended Westerville schools.

“I like the local connection, the local history that it provides for our young people,” he said.

More than 1,300 community members offered suggestions for the new facilities through a community engagement process last month. Popular options for the name of the new elementary school included literary figures Maya Angelou and Ohio-native Toni Morrison. Minerva France was suggested several times as she shares a name with the community and holds closer ties to Westerville. 

The daughter of a cook and railroad worker from Kentucky, France set a precedent for Black women in librarianship and higher education. According to the Westerville History Center & Museum, France and her sister moved to Westerville and attended public school. 

Her passion for learning and education led her to pursue library science, a rare career path for black women at that time. In 1923, Virginia Proctor Powell Florence became the first black woman to earn a library science degree — when France was 17-years-old and just embarking on her own library journey. She received her bachelor's degree from the West Virginia Institute and spent time at Columbia University before landing a job as a librarian and English instructor at Wilberforce College.

While at Wilberforce, France drove an hour one-way to Columbus to take night classes for her master's degree, finally graduating in 1934. She passed away from an illness the following year. 

A follow-up survey with community members indicated support to use France’s name for the new elementary, given its meaningful local history and connection to the school district itself. The design of the school pays tribute to the former Minerva Park Amusement Park. The curved portion of the building’s exterior was inspired by the amusement park’s Scenic Railway roller-coaster, while its turrets reflect architectural details of a building once on the amusement park’s grounds.

The community engagement process also showed clear-cut support for naming the new middle school after the Village of Minerva Park.

“I really like the idea of acknowledging the importance of Minerva Park in naming the middle school,” Board Vice President Dr. Nancy Nestor-Baker said. 

Minerva Park opened its gates as the first amusement park in Franklin County in 1895. The park was named after Minerva Shipherd, whose husband, John, served as president of the Railway Company. The 150-acre park included attractions such as the Scenic Railway roller coaster, a water slide, a bowling alley, a merry-go-round, a nature museum, a pony track and a small zoo. It housed a 2,500-seat theater that hosted a variety of productions including some of the biggest Vaudeville acts of the day. Homeowners incorporated the park as a village in 1940.

The design of the new middle school was inspired by themes of unity, peace and harmony. The facility features a tripod design, much like a peace symbol. The three wings represent the aspects of being (mind, body and spirit) as well as students’ well-being (mental, physical and emotional). They meet in the middle as a way to bring the aspects together. The front elevation is angled to represent arms that are reaching out in welcome.

With the names of the facilities now chosen, the district will engage families and students who will attend the new buildings for school mascot and color suggestions.