To many in Palo Alto, names matter -- especially the names of their schools.
The namesakes of three schools in particular evoke strong responses from people who have split into roughly two camps in the wake of a proposal to rename them: those who believe those namesakes' promotion of the now-condemned social philosophy eugenics is antithetical to the mission of a public school district, and those who want to preserve the local history tied to the names.
A committee convened by the school district this spring to study this issue has been grappling with very complex questions raised by this proposal: historical significance, racism, identity, diversity and educational opportunity.
The committee, set to host its first public town hall meeting this Monday, Nov. 7, reflects a community still strongly divided over whether to rename the schools in question.
This summer the Renaming Schools Advisory Committee spent its first few months in subcommittees, researching the names of all 17 schools in the district. The group determined most names were uncontroversial and did not merit renaming, save three. The committee has focused on Jordan and Terman middle schools and Cubberley Community Center for their namesakes' leadership in the eugenics movement, an early 20th-century philosophy that promoted the reproduction of genetic traits of particular races over others.
David Starr Jordan, well-known for his capacity as Stanford University's founding president, was a prominent eugenicist. 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 Lars Johnsson, whose petition to rename Jordan led to the creation of the committee. Jordan also authored "The Blood of the Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit," a 1902 publication that promoted eugenics.
Lewis M. Terman, a psychologist and Stanford faculty member known for creating an IQ test, and Elwood P. Cubberley, a professor and later dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, were also eugenics proponents.
Over the course of several months, the 13-member committee -- made up of parents, community members, one teacher and one student -- has struggled to find common ground between two entrenched viewpoints, though more members support renaming than not. At their Oct. 17 meeting, committee members took a preliminary vote on their positions. Six supported changing the names, two wanted to keep them and three wanted to modify the names in some way (such as preserving "Jordan," but removing the full name.) Two members were not present.
Those that support renaming argue that men who believed in a philosophy that promoted the sterilization of certain races and saw educational achievement as predetermined by race are unfit namesakes for public schools that espouse values of inclusion, diversity and equity.
"Our responsibility as a public school is to ensure that all children are afforded equal access to a high quality education in a safe and welcoming environment," one committee member wrote in anonymous summaries of their positions, solicited last month by the district administrator facilitating the committee, Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey.
"Naming our institutions for men who actively sought the subjugation of people based on their race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation and learning differences is an abrogation of that fundamental responsibility," the committee member wrote.
"Only the actual renaming of these schools will set the lasting reminder that there was a debate so significant that it warranted new school names," another member wrote.
Those against changing the names, many of them district alumni and longtime Palo Altans, defend their place in local history and tradition.
"Jordan has been in Palo Alto for 80 years, and there are many two- and three-generation families who share this common history," one member wrote. "This link with the past is important, and there are many people who want to preserve it."
Another member wrote: "I came into the group thinking there needed to be a compelling reason to offset change school names. I have not found a compelling reason to offset continuity and stability of the community."
A few committee members who oppose renaming the schools do so with the caveat that the district must put in place a comprehensive educational effort to teach students about the full histories of Cubberley, Jordan and Terman.
Those who support renaming have countered: "And what is your answer when they (students) ask you why is my school named after this person?" Johnsson asked at the Oct. 3 meeting. "Why do we need the name of this school to teach that?"
While most committee members have held onto the perspective they came into the group with, at least one parent's opinion has shifted over the course of their work.
Ben Lenail, the father of a Palo Alto High School graduate and current senior, said he joined the committee planning to insist on keeping the names to honor local history and tradition. But then he spent time on a subcommittee with two African-American mothers who both have children at Terman and "find it deeply unsettling that the school is named after somebody who was such a strong advocate of eugenics, sterilization (and) very much a race-based view of society," Lenail said in an interview with the Weekly. He's now in favor of renaming the schools in question.
Johnsson said the group has also yet to agree on a clear, objective "renaming rationale" that could help guide their final decision.
"We're trying to find out if there is common ground where you could say, if a school was named after a person, what does it take to have that name changed? Is it because the political views have changed and we're not aligned with his philosophy anymore? Is that already enough of a reason, or does it have to be more?" he said.
The committee is aiming for a consensus recommendation, Johnsson said, but the two camp's opinions on the answers to the above questions make that or even a compromising "middle-ground recommendation" challenging. Stan Hutchings, one of the five members who oppose renaming the schools, said the group plans to submit a "minority report" to the board along with the broader group's final recommendation.
There is, however, "widespread agreement" that eugenics and its local history should be more fully included in Palo Alto Unified's curriculum, Johnsson said. Many students, parents and alumni were unaware of this history until Johnsson's petition started circulating last fall. (He himself did not know about Jordan's beliefs until his son, then a seventh grader, brought home a book report on Jordan.)
About 400 people signed the petition last fall. It was also officially endorsed by 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). The Terman Site Council has also written an official statement in support of changing the school's name.
The renaming committee hopes to solicit public feedback on renaming at the Nov. 7 town hall, as well as educate community members by providing historical and other background.
"This will help the committee members to ensure that the community is aware of the issues, and that the committee is aware of the community views," Johnsson said.
The town hall will feature four panelists with professional expertise relating to eugenics, ethics, race and other topics. The panelists will "look at eugenics in the context of its time, how names and messages impact the inclusiveness of a school's environment, how students' sense of respect and belonging might impact their academic achievements, and what opportunities and difficulties a school renaming might create," an event description states.
The panelists are Joseph Brown, associate director of Stanford's Diversity and First Generation Office and graduate diversity recruitment officer for the university; Mary Rorty, a clinical associate professor at the Stanford Medical Center and fellow at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics; Milton Reynolds, senior program manager for national educational nonprofit "Facing History and Ourselves;" and Tony Platt, a longtime professor who writes about race, inequality, and social justice in American history.
The panel will be moderated by Ken Yale, a facilitator the district has hired to support several committee efforts in recent years. The panelists will make short presentations based on their respective expertise and take questions from the audience. The entire renaming committee will also be present and available to answer questions.
The meeting will run from 6:30-8:30 p.m. in the Media Arts Center at Palo Alto High School, 50 Embarcadero Road.
The committee is expected to present a final recommendation to the school board in December. The group's meeting schedule, agendas and minutes are posted at pausd.org.