WESTFIELD, NJ — A plan is in the works to honor the late Westfield High School principal Dr. Derrick Nelson, but this plan does not include renaming the school, school officials said this week.
“We have something in the works,” said Superintendent Margaret Dolan at Tuesday’s virtual school board meeting. “It is not complete. I will tell you, it is not renaming the entire school, but it is something that would honor his memory.”
Dolan said students at Westfield High School were surveyed to determine how best to honor Nelson. The current plan is a collaboration between students, administration and the PTSO, Dolan said.
Business administrator Dana Sullivan added that work on the project stalled due to the pandemic but has recently resumed.
“We were on track, we got sidetracked with the pandemic. We were moving along much quicker before, but we have resumed plans,” Sullivan said. “We’re still working internally, through administration, but when we bring it to the full board, it will be public. We don’t have a date for that yet.”
Dolan’s and Sullivan’s comments come amid renewed calls for the school’s renaming. In a letter to the editor published Sunday, 2016 Westfield High School graduate Caroline Barry advocated for the renaming, saying renaming the school would be “another step toward recognizing the contributions of the diverse members of our community.”
Barry referenced a Change.org petition to rename the high school. The petition, created by Jason Starkman shortly after Nelson's passing, has reached 33,775 signatures as of this writing.
Barry reiterated her position during Tuesday’s board meeting.
“I believe there is no better time than right now, given many circumstances, to renew the interest in renaming the high school in honor of Dr. Derrick E Nelson,” Barry said. “This is the right time because of the spotlight on the racial divide in our country. As we have discussed in our community and beyond, it’s something we would like to improve upon going forward.”
“It’s been just over a year since his passing, and I know we’re all still feeling that effect on our community, our students and our faculty,” she added. “It’s a great time to look forward to the ways that the high school system and the community are going to change post-pandemic.”
Board President Peggy Oster said she would bring the idea back to the high school’s PTSO for further discussion. Oster, who attends PTSO meetings as a board liaison, said the organization has previously considered the petition, among other options.
“Since the passing of Dr. Nelson, they’ve spent a lot of time talking about that petition to rename the high school, and also other opportunities to honor Dr. Nelson,” Oster said. “The project that Dana [Sullivan] is speaking of is being put together with coordination with the administration at Westfield High School, along with the PTSO, and along with the students who came up with the idea to do this project.”
Dr. Nelson died April 8 at age 44 from complications that followed his bone marrow donation to a boy in France.
Nelson joined the Westfield Public School District in 2010 and served as the Assistant Principal of Roosevelt Intermediate School for two years. The school board named Nelson Westfield High School Principal in 2017 after he had served as acting principal for a year.
Prior to joining the district, Nelson started his career in education in Plainfield before serving as an administrator in the Orange School District. He served in the Army Reserve for over 20 years, his obituary said.
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