Four panelists with diverse professional expertise relating to history, race, education, social justice and ethics urged the Palo Alto school district at a town hall Monday night to think about a current debate over whether or not to rename three of its school sites as an educational opportunity and potential catalyst for deeper change.
The district's Renaming Schools Advisory Committee invited the four panelists to anchor its first public town hall. The panelists provided historical context about the three namesakes in question for their prominence in the eugenics movement — David Starr Jordan, Lewis M. Terman and Elwood Cubberley — as well as their perspectives on how these histories impact students today, particularly students of color.
"At the root of eugenics is a belief that inborn, hereditary factors play a central role in determining who is rich, who is poor, who is successful, who is unsuccessful, who is able, who is disabled, who is deserving and undeserving of social support," said Tony Platt, a University of California, Berkeley affiliated scholar whose research supported efforts to rename a Sacramento middle school and other public facilities that carried the name of Charles M. Goethe, a philanthropist and eugenicist.
Platt and others on the panel described the long-lasting impact of eugenics and the lobbying efforts of its proponents, including sterilization, immigration restrictions and a belief that some races, religions and identities are inferior compared to others.
The question before the renaming committee, which is set to make a recommendation to the school board next month, is what, if anything, should be done about the fact that three Palo Alto school sites are named after people who were very active in this movement?
The panelists discussed research showing the negative impact that such names could have on students, particularly within the context of the district's commitment to inclusion.
Joseph Brown, associate director of Stanford University's Diversity and First Generation Office and graduate diversity recruitment officer, pointed to research that has shown when students experience bias — whether conscious or unconscious — it makes them more self-conscious, more worried about being negatively stereotyped and less likely to learn in the classroom.
"When a student feels that they are respected, seen (and) valued, difficulty is seen for what it is — temporary, something that can be remedied through the right mentoring, feedback, continued effort," he said. "But when students worry that they aren't valued or respected, when they feel at risk because of one or more social identities they possess — it could be their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, their religious affiliation — then frustration, difficulty and experience of bias now carries a more threatening message that they do not belong, they are not valued and that their continued effort in that environment is not likely to lead to success."
Brown and other panelists urged the community to seize the renaming discussion as an opportunity to seriously examine the school district's larger strategies around inclusion, equity and diversity.
"We should be aggressively interrogating what we do in the classroom and the ideas that they may convey to students," Brown said.
Milton Reynolds, senior program manager for national educational nonprofit "Facing History and Ourselves," said he himself experienced the detrimental effects of bias in school. He dropped out by junior year, he said, not because he wasn't interested in learning, but because "those that were there to protect me couldn't fully see me."
The panelists also took questions and comments from audience members. Palo Alto resident Mike Hedblom read them a statement from his eighth-grade son at Terman Middle School, who wrote that "The words 'Terman' and 'inclusive' don't belong together."
"In English, I am reading a book about the Holocaust," wrote Skyler Hedblom, who is Jewish. "My teacher and I have discussed how awful it was. Yet every day, I bike past the sign saying 'Welcome to Terman Middle School.' How can my teacher and I have these discussions, when we go to a school named after one of the leading advocates for segregation and sterilization of Italians, Portuguese, Mexicans, African Americans and Spanish Indians?"
Several other community members spoke in support of renaming. One man called one panelist's suggestion not to rename the schools, now that their namesakes' history is more publicly known, "horribly evasive."
That panelist, Mary Rorty, a clinical associate professor at the Stanford Medical Center and fellow at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, responded that "changing names doesn't solve problems; it might make it easier to pretend they don't exist." She had suggested an alternative option for the school district: to conduct more research, including surveying students and alumni about how they feel about their schools' names, and then develop a course on the names' histories and revisit the topic with students after they have taken it.
Platt acknowledged that those in the community who oppose renaming have strong connections to the generations of history and community inextricably linked to the names of these institutions.
"It's a very difficult process to change decades and generations of doing things in a particular way and I understand why theres a lot of resistance to that," Platt said, with one committee member sitting in the audience quietly responding, "Yes!"
"But it's also an opportunity to reset the values and goals and aspirations of an institution," Platt added.
More than 50 people attended Monday's town hall meeting, including Superintendent Max McGee, new Jordan Principal Katie Kinnaman, other district administrators, several school-board members and board candidates as well as most members of the renaming committee.
The committee's next meeting is this Monday, Nov. 14, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the district office, Room A, 25 Churchill Ave. The group's meeting schedule, agendas and minutes are posted at pausd.org. A video recording of the town hall has been posted online here.