Following the tearful testimony of one African-American student and an entire class of Palo Alto High School students who spoke about the importance of renaming Jordan Middle School given its namesake's involvement in eugenics, the school board unanimously approved the creation of a committee that will review the names of all of Palo Alto Unified's schools.
"What I want to say, to just get off my chest: I think it is imperative that Jordan be renamed almost immediately," Mariah Poitier, an African-American student who serves as Paly's social justice and school climate commissioner, told the board. Poitier also attended Jordan, which is named after David Starr Jordan, who was a leader in the eugenics movement, an early 20th-century science that promoted the reproduction of genetic traits of particular races over others.
"A school name like Jordan offends me and makes me very angry," Poitier continued, through tears. "It's been hard going to this school in this district and knowing that people support someone who, given the opportunity, I would have been sterilized, called stupid, called incompetent ... I think because we know better, as people, that we should do better and it's our moral obligation to make sure that every person in this district feels included and that they will be accepted."
The proposal to rename Jordan was born out of a petition started by Lars Johnsson, a Jordan parent who was shocked to learn about Jordan's history through a research project his then-seventh-grade son brought home last year. In November, he started a petition calling on the board to appoint a citizens advisory committee to consider new names for the school. The petition has since collected almost 400 signatures from individuals and also received official endorsements from several parent groups in the school district, 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).
Johnsson said research he conducted himself after learning about Jordan's background 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. He also penned "The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit," a 1902 publication that promoted eugenics, 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."
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, 2015, letter from PASS in support of the petition.
Board members expressed support Tuesday for taking a broad, creative look at all school names in the district. Concerns have also been raised about Terman Middle School and Cubberley Community Center given that Lewis Terman and Ellwood Cubberley were also eugenics proponents.
Board member Ken Dauber noted that there are no schools named after African-American or Asian-American figures, and only one school named after a Hispanic person (Juana Briones Elementary School).
"It's important students see themselves in at least some of the names of their schools," Dauber said.
"I think we owe it to our community and our students to make sure that every place that our kids are being educated in, that they do feel welcome and they do feel supported, and they feel like they have role models that they can emulate and don't seem so far away from them," board member Melissa Baten Caswell echoed. "Until we do that, until every kid can see themselves in the role models that we put forth, we're not going to have any kind of equity."
More than 10 students from Paly's Social Justice Pathway program, several former Jordan students, also spoke to the board about the potential renaming of school facilities. Some spoke in strong support of renaming Jordan and others offered alternatives. Some noted Jordan's achievements as president of Stanford University and his leading work in ichthyology, the study of fish.
The students also emphasized that education is key; they said in surveys and interviews of both students and staff that they conducted as part of research for the class, many were unaware of the issue and history of eugenics. Some suggested incorporating eugenics into middle-school curriculum.
"Education is imperative," said Paly student Jeanette Andrews.
Johnsson said Wednesday that a unanimous vote of support from the Gunn High School student council and the statements from the Paly Social Justice Pathway students was "most gratifying.
"After all the name change is intended for the school community, to make every student feel welcome, and the very personal and emotional statement from the last student speaker made it clear to everyone that heard it, why the community needs to proceed with the name change," he wrote in an email, referring to Poitier's comments.
The new committee will be a citizens advisory committee governed by the Brown Act, with public meetings and agendas and minutes posted regularly. The group will be charged with researching names of current district schools and submitting recommendations for renaming one or more schools for the board's consideration by Dec, 31. Their work will be guided by a professional facilitator.
The district will now start the application process for the committee, whose membership will be "representative of the larger community and reflect its diversity, range of viewpoints, and historical perspectives," a staff report reads. The district aims to have the committee formed on or before March 31.
"I said this last time: Names matter," Board President Heidi Emberling said. "I don't want any child to feel marginalized in our community. We celebrate diversity here and we need to do it with our names as well."