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What's in a name? For some in Phoenix-Talent, it's everything

Faced with losing more than 50 students to Ashland next year, Phoenix-Talent School District officials say they hope renaming the district and its two secondary schools will attract new students and better reflect its boundaries.

The district encompasses Phoenix, Talent, unincorporated areas of Jackson County and parts of Medford, and the current names don't accurately reflect where all students are from, said Jani Hale, principal of Phoenix High School.

"We come from this geographic patchwork quilt," she said.

The idea was born out of a communication committee charged with brainstorming ways to better market the district's strengths, which include advanced placement courses, a strong Future Farmers of America program and talented sports teams, Hale said.

PHS students said Monday they find the idea of renaming their campus insulting.

"I feel like our district is embarrassed to be in Phoenix," said Max Hamilton, a senior. "A lot of the reasons for changing the name just don't make sense."

Students made a banner Monday morning in support of keeping the school's name intact, and within a few hours more than a couple hundred students had signed it.

During a leadership course Monday afternoon, Hale asked students to try to understand the rationale of the district for considering a name change, and acknowledged the topic would be emotional.

"It takes a while to change a school's reputation," said Hale.

The communication committee was formed after the Oregon Legislature approved a new law allowing open enrollment last year, Hale said. Neighboring district Ashland was the only one in Jackson County to approve open enrollment, and this spring it accepted 54 students from Phoenix-Talent for the 2012-13 school year. The equivalent of more than $300,000 in state funding will move with the students.

Oregon legislators said the law was meant to offer families more freedom of choice, but many local administrators have said open enrollment will fuel competition among districts, leading them to market themselves better to attract more students from other areas.

"This provided us an opportunity to sit down and look at who we are," said Hale. "And they felt the name was very limiting."

A subcommittee has narrowed the choices for a new name to four: Rogue South, South Valley, South Rogue and South Rogue Valley. Once the name is chosen, it will apply to the district, Phoenix High School and Talent Middle School.

The committee also decided to abandon "school district" in favor of just "schools," as in Rogue South Schools, for example.

Each of the district's elementary schools will keep its name.

Hamilton said that most of the high school's students learned about the name change over the last week, and few, if any, support the idea.

Sophomore Lily Wilson transferred to PHS from Ashland High School this year and said that while she had some preconceived ideas about Phoenix students, the name of the school played no role in her decision.

"Changing a name doesn't change the school's reputation," said Wilson, 16.

Students at PHS and TMS can vote on their favorite of the name choices during school on May 7, and also will be able to leave written comments that the naming subcommittee will see.

Parents, alumni, school supporters and other community members can cast their votes at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 16, at the high school, and 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at the middle school.

"We're running away from who we are," said PHS senior Andrew Vargas, who doesn't think alumni of the school will support the name change, either.

"People want to graduate from the school they came to," said Alondra Garcia, a freshman.

Garcia said she didn't understand how the district could afford to change the name, and questioned the school board and the administration's reasoning for wanting to change the district's reputation.

The district has some money in a capital projects fund that could be used for sign replacements and other changes, but it hopes to make the crossover "cost-neutral" by grandfathering the name out and replacing things branded with the school's name only when they need replacing, said Cally McKenzie, chairwoman of the naming subcommittee.

"The last thing we're going to do is run out and spend a bunch of money," said McKenzie, who is also the district human resources director.

McKenzie said that as a graduate of a school with a changed name, she understands the emotional weight of a name, but she hoped students and alumni alike would understand the decision.

"Change is difficult, and there's no way to do change without some growing pains," said McKenzie. "It's hard for people to wrap their minds around it."

After students and the community vote on the new name, the school board will review the results and vote on whether to approve the name June 7.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.

Phoenix High School freshmen Gabriela Gil, left, and Alondra Garcia react with concern as they read the proposal to change the school's name during leadership class Monday. - Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell