Tuesday, June 12, 2001

Maryland school
named for Spark

An elementary school in
Germantown has been named
after the late Hawaii senator

By Pat Omandam

A Maryland county school board made state history today by naming a new elementary school after the late Hawaii U.S. Sen. Spark M. Matsunaga.

The 5-3 vote by the Montgomery County Board of Education came after a "heated discussion" because a parent-teacher group also involved in the naming process argued the school should be dedicated after Lillian B. Brown, a retired black teacher who taught for many years at a segregated elementary school in the county.

"There was a lot of high tension, a lot of emotions running high, but in the end, the board felt clearly there needed to be a school in Montgomery County... named after an Asian American," said Kristine Minami, public affairs director and Washington, D.C. representative of the Japanese American Citizens League.

Minami explained that Asian-Pacific educators and others in the progressive county four years ago lobbied the school board to be the first in Maryland to name a public school after an Asian American to reflect the area's growing ethnic diversity.

There are about 90,000 Asian Americans in Montgomery County, about 13 percent of its population.

A coalition of Asian-Pacific American groups stepped up efforts again this spring after eight more county schools were opened but none named after an Asian American. Minami said the coalition's overwhelming first choice was Matsunaga because of his political advocacy for peace, civil rights and the environment and because he had lived in Montgomery County for 28 years until he died in 1990.

The school board recommended three names for Northwest Elementary School No. 6, which opens this fall in Germantown: Spark M. Matsunaga, Alan Cheung and Lavinia Margaret Engle.

The problem began when a committee made up mostly of parents, teachers and those who lived near the new school added two more names to the list.

The panel then ranked Brown as its first choice; Matsunaga was fourth.

Still, some board members had stated they will only support an Asian-American name, prompting criticism from county parents.

Patricia Rapp, a Germantown PTA activist and member of the naming committee, said, "We feel that the name is being crammed down our throats."

Hawaii state Sen. Matt Matsunaga (D, Palolo) said yesterday he has received telephone calls from the school group asking he withdraw his father's name.

He declined to interfere, saying his family approved of the idea but did not start it.

"This is really bigger than my father. This is about Asian Americans in Maryland and Montgomery County," said Matsunaga, who lived in the county from 1962 to 1985 until he moved to Hawaii after law school.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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