Arlington’s next elementary school would be named for an educator who broke several color barriers during her career, if the proposal by a task force wins School Board approval on June 15.
The school-naming panel chose to recommend “Alice West Fleet Elementary” as its preferred name, which would salute the namesake’s “remarkable and long-lasting contributions to our community and to the education of Arlington County students.”
If adopted by the School Board, the name would go on the new school that is set to be built adjacent to Thomas Jefferson Middle School. Construction is slated to start over the summer and take about two years.
The naming committee, led by Patrick Henry principal Andrea Turner, met four times over the course of three months and offered an online survey to solicit community feedback.
In backing the name of Fleet (1909-2000), the committee passed over several other options, including moving the name of Patrick Henry Elementary School to the new facility. Whether the slave-holding patriot’s name remains on the existing building will be considered by a later naming committee, as school officials plan to move students currently at the Montessori program at Drew Model School to Patrick Henry once the new elementary opens.
Turner told School Board members that committee members had held “open and honest deliberations” about the merits of retaining Patrick Henry’s name or replacing it.
“The feedback from the community was mixed, with some people favoring keeping the existing name and others favoring changing it,” Turner said in a memo to School Board members. “In the absence of an overriding preference, the committee decided on a new name.”
The granddaughter of slaves, Fleet taught at four Arlington elementary schools over the course of 31 years: Hoffman-Boston, Drew, Woodmont and Reed. She was both the first African-American reading teacher in the Arlington school system and the first black teacher at a previously all-white school (Woodmont).
According to the Arlington Historical Society, Fleet moved to Arlington after marrying Edmond Fleet, a widower with three children. At the time, Virginia jurisdictions operated under rigid segregation laws – a color barrier that existed in schools, housing, theaters and restaurants.
Fleet originally taught in Fairfax County’s public schools, then in Arlington’s. She managed to complete her undergraduate degree at Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) while also holding down the teaching position and helping to raise her stepchildren. Fleet later went on to earn a master’s degree in reading and engage in doctoral studies.
After her retirement in 1971, Fleet served two terms on the Virginia State Commission on the Status of Women and in a number of leadership roles with local organizations. She and her husband were leaders in the effort to establish the Veterans Memorial YMCA, which provided educational and recreational activities to youth in South Arlington.
Derick Malis, who served as executive director of the Veterans Memorial YMCA from 1993-2002, recalled Mrs. Fleet as a dignified woman who, along with her husband, “was one of the big supporters” of the organization from its founding in the 1940s.
As for naming a school in her honor? Malis was supportive.
“She was a trailblazer . . . very community-minded,” he said.
The Fleets also were active in Mount Zion Baptist Church; after her husband died, Alice Fleet established the Edmond C. Fleet scholarship fund at the church to provide college opportunities for young people.
Arlington Public Schools’ naming regulations require that a person be deceased for at least five years before having their name considered for a public facility.
School Board members in late 2000 renamed Glencarlyn Elementary School as “Campbell Elementary,” ostensibly paying homage to local attorney and civic leader Edmund Campbell, who had died five years before. But the renaming also effectively honored Elizabeth Campbell (then still alive), the first woman elected to Arlington’s School Board in the 1940s and founder of public-broadcaster WETA.
Elizabeth Campbell died at age 101 in early 2004; five years later, the School Board formally renamed Campbell Elementary as “Edmund and Elizabeth Campbell School.”