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San Antonio High School Changes Name Tied To Confederacy Despite Resistance

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Over the past three years, dozens of schools named after Confederate leaders have been renamed amid the national debate over Confederate symbols. Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio is one of the latest, and the rebranding met quite a bit of resistance along the way.

Texas Public Radio's Camille Phillips stopped by the first home football game of the season to get some reaction.

UNIDENTIFIED DANCERS: (Chanting) Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da (ph) Beat the Eagles.

CAMILLE PHILLIPS, BYLINE: It's an hour before kickoff, and Lee's dance teams are running through their warmups. They used to be called the Rebel Rousers and the Dixie Drillers - not anymore. Now they're the Royal Rubies and the Darling Drillers - part of the effort that also changed the mascot, the fight song and retired some cheers.

The dancers still wear their signature cowboy hats, sequins and fringe. But team mom Jessica Sanchez feels it's just not the same.

JESSICA SANCHEZ: For seniors, at least, that have been there a little bit and have been the original name, it's put a little bit of a gray cloud over their senior year.

PHILLIPS: The Lee in Lee High School is now an acronym for Legacy of Educational Excellence, not Robert E. Lee. Sanchez was against the change.

SANCHEZ: It's history. And history is history. We can't change that. It had nothing to do with our era or any of these children.

PHILLIPS: Like many schools across the country named after Confederate leaders, San Antonio's Robert E. Lee High School was founded in the 1950s, shortly after court-ordered desegregation. There are currently more than 130 schools named after Confederate soldiers. According to Education Week, roughly three dozen others have changed their names since 2015, after the Charleston church shooting brought renewed attention to Confederate symbols.

Kenny Strawn was a senior at Lee High School last year. He made changing the name his mission.

KENNY STRAWN: He was a general that led a rebellion against the United States. And in no other countries on Earth do you see them glorifying generals of armies that fought against them.

PHILLIPS: Strawn says the white supremacist rally at Robert E. Lee's statue in Charlottesville convinced him to push for the name to be removed from his school.

STRAWN: It didn't seem like a place where everyone should feel safe should be named after something like that.

PHILLIPS: But at this football game, it was hard to find anyone that supports the name change.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)

PHILLIPS: Down in the student stands, where the mascot dances in their new costume, 10th-grader Gaby Moncada is worried about school spirit.

GABY MONCADA: Everyone's been making fun of the name change and the new school song, so a lot of people don't approve of it.

PHILLIPS: The mascot used to be a Confederate soldier named Grumpy Gus. Now it's a military service dog. School officials say they spent about $300,000 replacing the mascot, removing the statue of Robert E. Lee in the school lobby and updating signs. They plan to move that statue and other Confederate-themed artifacts to a museum in the school library.

Principal Nicole Franco says they implemented the effort over the summer to get a fresh start for the new school year.

NICOLE FRANCO: We can't afford the distractions. We have four short years with students, and we've got to keep plugging along at what we're here to do.

PHILLIPS: District officials say it would have cost more than a million dollars if they hadn't kept the name Lee and continued calling the athletics teams the Volunteers. For NPR News, I'm Camille Phillips in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.