A majority on the Palo Alto school board said Tuesday night that they prefer renaming two middle schools after people rather than after geographic locations, arguing that to not do so would be a missed educational and inspirational opportunity.
The school board discussed a committee's recommendation for eight new names for Terman and Jordan middle schools: six people and two locations. The board voted to rename the schools last year because Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan advocated eugenics, an early 20th-century movement that promoted the reproduction of genetic traits of particular races over others. (Terman Middle School is also co-named for Lewis Terman's son, Frederick Emmons Terman, a Silicon Valley pioneer who did not espouse eugenics; however the school board has declined to retain Fred Terman's name in the school name.)
The committee has recommended the following individuals as possible names: Ellen Fletcher, Frank Greene Jr., William Hewlett, Edith Johnson, Fred Yamamoto and Anna Zschokke. The geographic alternatives are Adobe Creek for Terman and Redwood Grove for Jordan. (Read more about the names here.)
The advisory committee expressed a "strong" preference for naming the middle schools after people.
"We recognize the risks this represents," said Leland Levy, co-chair of the advisory committee and former Palo Alto mayor. "People are never perfect, but we believe the ability of individual lives to inspire our youth should not be lightly passed over."
Board Vice President Jennifer DiBrienza and membrs Melissa Baten Caswell and Terry Godfrey agreed. Up until Tuesday, Godfrey said she had preferred geographic names, but the committee's presentation persuaded her.
"After listening to your presentation about why it's important to have real flesh-and-blood people who aren't perfect be role models to our kids, I'm convinced: That's right," she said. "I'm a little embarrassed I was so committed to location names until earlier today."
Board member Todd Collins and President Ken Dauber disagreed, suggesting that the district instead install memorial plaques at the middle schools that honor the six recommended individuals and other Palo Altans in the future.
"School names, I think, have very limited impact on students," Collins said. "While I understand the instinct because I think we want to honor people, I see a downside in choosing names, and I think there's a large portion of community that would like to see us not choose names and never have to revisit this issue again."
Dauber said he found the location names preferable to having to choose two out of six names. He argued that naming the schools after "prominent natural features" would be a positive decision that communicates the importance of the environment. Adobe Creek runs behind Terman's campus and Jordan is home to more than a dozen redwood trees, according to the committee.
Particular support has emerged on the committee and in the community for Yamamoto, a Japanese-American Palo Alto High School graduate who was in the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Committee member Sara Armstrong described him as a war hero whose "response to injustice and discrimination was not bitterness or hatred but rather a sense of purpose," including an immediate enlistment in the U.S. Army. Yamamoto was killed in action just after his 26th birthday.
Terry Fletcher, the daughter of Ellen Fletcher, urged the board to "right the wrongs of the past" by naming the two schools after people who were affected by the eugenics movement, including Yamamoto; her mother, a Holocaust survivor who became a public servant and bicycle advocate in Palo Alto; and others.
"It's about time to give our students the opportunity to learn about the real heroes and heroines of our community," she said.
Trustees agreed to weigh in in more detail on the specific names at its next meeting, on March 27, when they will take action.
In other business Tuesday, the board approved the creation of a community committee that will advise the board during the final stages of its search for a new superintendent. Trustees agreed that each of them can nominate two people to the committee, the interim human-resource directors will nominate five staff members and the interim superintendent will work with student leaders to nominate two students, one from each high school.
The committee will meet confidentially with final candidates and develop a list of strengths and concerns to present to the board. They will not have any voting power; the board makes the final decision. The board is in the midst of a national search for a permanent replacement for former superintendent Max McGee, who left the district in September.
The board also decided against approving an upcoming school service trip to Tijuana, Mexico, due to safety concerns in the area. The teacher leading the trip, Gunn High School's Dave Deggeller, noted that other cities have the same travel warnings, including Paris, France, and Palo Alto's sister city, Oaxaca, and questioned the "future of service" in the district given the board's decision. The trip to Tijuana has run for 20 years, he said.
All but one board member voted against approving the trip. Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza abstained.