James K. Polk step aside. Eva Legard is taking over.

The longtime elementary school in Baton Rouge named after a slaveholding U.S. president is likely to soon bear the name of the first African American woman to serve on the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

The board Thursday night gave preliminary approval to renaming the 59-year-old elementary school in south Baton Rouge after the woman who represented the area from 1980 to 1994.

The school would become the Eva Legard Learning Center. The street it's on, however, would remain Polk Street.

A final vote is scheduled for July 18.

Evelyn Ware-Jackson, who now represents the historically black area, said she’s happy the school would bear the name of her predecessor. She noted the elementary school is currently used as administrative offices, but she said she expects it will again be a school in the near future.

“We don’t know where that school will finally land, but we know whatever it is there will be learning involved,” Ware-Jackson said.

Legard, who grew up in Lafayette and later moved to Baton Rouge, died in 2005 at the age of 80.

State Rep. Pat Smith, who was not present Thursday, helped lead the charge to rename the school.

She led a delegation of community leaders who spoke at May 2 board meeting, urging the board to rename the school. The delegation included, among others, Baton Rouge NAACP President Mike McClanahan. Smith for years represented the south Baton Rouge community on the parish School Board before winning a seat on the state Legislature in 2007.

As per school system policy, the School Board formed a school renaming committee which posted an online petition seeking new names for Polk. The committee also held a forum Tuesday at the McKinley High alumni center to receive more suggestions. Almost all of the 174 responses received sought to rename the school after Eva Legard.

The committee offered the board three very similar names to choose from, all of which were a variation on Eva Legard Center. No one spoke in favor of keeping the name of the pre-Civil War, 19th century president.

Superintendent Warren Drake applauded the pending change, saying he remembers Legard well from her time on the School Board.

“She was a wonderful, wonderful woman,” Drake said. “Everyone loved her.

It may be awhile before the Eva Legard Learning Center becomes a school again.

After enrollment dwindled to less than 200 students, Polk Elementary was closed in 2013, but slowly, one grade at a time. For five years, the shrinking Polk shared spaced with the foreign language immersion school, BR FLAIM, before that magnet school moved to a new location.

For the past year, Polk has been used as offices for the Fine Arts department. In a year, the school is slated to be “swing space” for students from Buchanan and University Terrace elementary schools while University Terrace is rebuilt and expanded.

Associate Superintendent Adam Smith said once the University Terrace reconstruction is complete, the plan is to reopen the renamed Polk campus as some kind of neighborhood school.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.