Gunn High School is named after Henry M. Gunn, once a Palo Alto superintendent and longtime educator. Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School's namesake was a co-founder of Stanford University and wife of Leland Stanford. Lucille M. Nixon Elementary School bears the name of a Palo Alto poet and educator.
David Starr Jordan Middle School was named for a man known for his accomplishments as founding president of Stanford, a pacifist and his work in ichthyology, the study of fish.
But Starr Jordan was also a vocal eugenicist an advocate of a science that promoted the reproduction of genetic traits of particular races over others and it is because of this that one current Jordan Middle School parent is calling for a new name for the school.
Lars Johnsson, who has three children in the district, including two currently at Jordan, started an online petition on Charge.org in November to ask the board to discuss renaming Jordan whose "value system could not be further removed from our 21st century Palo Alto spirit," Johnsson wrote in an email to petition supporters last month.
"I spoke to many of you about this issue and could sense the same shock and dismay I feel every day when sending my children to a school that carries his name, and thereby honors his legacy," Johnsson wrote. "Now it's time for change."
With more than 300 signatures and the endorsement of parent groups, including Parent Advocates for Student Success (PASS), which represents parents of minority students; the Palo Alto chapter of the Community Advisory Committee (CAC), which represents families of students with special needs; and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs (PTAC), the school board has agreed to discuss the potential name change in January, Superintendent Max McGee confirmed Monday.
Johnsson first became interested in Jordan's history when his son, then a seventh-grader, brought home a book report about the school's namesake toward the end of the last school year. Johnsson was shocked by Jordan's support of eugenics, and began researching the issue himself. He read about Jordan online as well as some of his books, including "The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit," a 1902 publication that promoted the eugenics movement, which Johnsson's petition describes as "the early 20 century movement in America to create a MASTER RACE through desirable breeding, forced sterilization, deportation and immigration control."
Johnsson said that his research made it clear that Jordan was not only a participant, but a leader in the eugenics movement. He was chair of the Eugenics Section of the American Breeders Association starting in 1906, an "incorporating member" of the Human Betterment Foundation and an advisory council member of the Eugenics Committee of the American Eugenics Society, according to Johnsson.
"In my view, he's left us with enough evidence, writings to qualify him as an undisputed leader in a very negative way," Johnsson said in an interview.
Jordan was also "of the firm belief that educational achievement is predetermined by race, and that opportunity and education cannot influence a persons intellectual abilities," PASS co-chair Sara Woodham, also Johnsson's wife, wrote in a Nov. 22 letter from PASS in support of the petition.
"Jordan's value system could hardly be further removed from those of PASS and of our community in general," she wrote. "PASS believes that we are overdue for school names that reflect our principles of inclusion and equity in all of our students, and in particular students among us who are most vulnerable to bias."
Christina Schmidt, chair of the Palo Alto CAC, wrote in a Nov. 20 letter of support that "any promotion of Mr. Jordan's philosophy represents a direct threat to all children born with disabilities and their families, and disfavored minority groups."
Johnsson has also been collecting comments from people as they signed his petition. Shannon Yang, a junior at Gunn, wrote that "If we want people of all races to be successful at our schools, we should start with the names of the institutions themselves."
Nan Dame wrote: "I happily sign this petition because we are a five generation Palo Alto family that has had 3 generations of children at Jordan without realizing who Jordan was. The most current generation being in school now. We have to let our children know we are not tolerant of any form of racism and do not honor those who would perpetuate, in any way, racism or lack of respect for everyone."
Johnsson noted in an Oct. 14. presentation to the district's Minority Achievement and Talent Development committee that if Palo Alto Unified decided to move forward with a name change, it would not be alone. In recent years, schools across the country have changed their names, including Nathan Bedford Forrest High in Florida, which became Westside High in 2014 after a petition that garnered more than 140,000 signatures opposing the name of a Confederate Army general and the first "Grand Wizard" of the Klu Klux Klan.
Palo Alto is also not the only district home to a school named after Jordan; there are also two high schools in Los Angeles and Long Beach and a middle school in Burbank.
The Stanford campus also has a Jordan Hall, which houses the Department of Psychology.
Under Palo Alto Unified board policy, a citizen advisory committee can be appointed to review name suggestions and submit recommendations for the board's consideration. Johnsson's petition is calling on the board to do just that.
McGee said he thinks the topic is "worthy of an open discussion." He and the two board members who set the meeting agendas the president and vice president have yet to select which January meeting the topic will be discussed at.
Johnsson said he sees his petition as an opportunity to not only send a message to the school board, but to open a dialogue in Palo Alto about related issues, like the achievement gap.
"I do believe and I think many people do believe, sending messages and having symbolism is powerful," he said.