More than two years have passed since a seventh-grader at David Starr Jordan Middle School discovered that his school's namesake was a leader in one of the 20th century's ugliest movements: eugenics, or the belief that some races are inferior to others and that sterilization of people with "undesireable" traits is justified.
The horror felt by that student, who is part African-American, became the catalyst for a committee's exploration of renaming of Jordan and Terman Middle School (Lewis Terman was also a eugenicist). A year ago, the school board unanimously decided to proceed and a citizens' Recommending School Names Advisory Committee was formed to gather and vet new names. Their dedication to the task, which included more than 2,000 hours of work, is to be lauded.
A year ago we were not enthusiastic about the renaming due to the resources and time it would likely consume. We recommended at the least a delay in the process until the district had the funds to spend on the rebranding of signs, stationery and athletics jerseys that will be necessary. Because the district did proceed, however, we now believe the only sensible choice is to move forward, and we urge the board to finalize the two names as scheduled next Tuesday.
The process of choosing the names has been open and fair. It began with an open call for submissions, which drew 1,600 responses, including nearly 320 different people's names and 50 unique suggestions of geographic markers. From those, the committee, which included school district personnel, three former City Council members and other residents, researched the names based on criteria such as inclusion, integrity and contribution to Palo Alto.
The eight nominees they recommended last week to the school board — six individuals and two geographic markers — are written up in a report, which we urge everyone to read. These individuals are among the most outstanding residents Palo Alto has known. They helped build the city through innovation — such as William R. Hewlett, whose company has become synonymous with Palo Alto and whose philanthropic legacy continues to better the world, and Ellen Fletcher, the City Council member known for her advocacy of cycling and environmental causes. They were exemplars of the practice of inclusion — such as Anna Zschokke, who founded the Palo Alto school system in the 1800s for the local children, and Frank Greene Jr., a pioneering technologist who advocated for greater diversity in Silicon Valley. And they demonstrated integrity, such as Edith Johnson, the city's first female doctor, who treated patients regardless of their ethnicity or ability to pay, and Fred Yamamoto, a Palo Alto youth leader who inspired others with his devotion to equality and community and who died in World War II fighting for democracy and justice.
While the renaming process has drawn out honest concerns from many people, we are bothered by one development this week that may be influencing the nomination considerations. Some in the community have vociferously objected to Yamamoto's nomination, noting that his surname is the same as that of Japanese naval admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor and is blamed for earlier playing a role in Japan's invasion of China.
They are entitled to their opinion; however, as school trustee Melissa Baten Caswell succinctly observed Monday: To view Fred Yamamoto not as an individual but solely by his Japanese heritage is what led this country to wrongly force Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II. It is "guilt by association."
It also flies in the face of the noble purpose of renaming the schools, which is to stand as a community for the ideal that every individual should have the opportunity to make something of him or herself, not judged or limited by others based on race or creed, but celebrated based on one's own actions and character.
We strongly reject the idea that choosing Fred Yamamoto, who was the committee's single top pick for a middle school namesake, is now suddenly an inappropriate option.
More broadly, we believe, as does the committee, that naming schools for people carries far more power to inspire our students than place names, of which the district already has plenty.
We urge the school board to stay the course, honor the original intent of the renaming, and choose people as namesakes for the schools. This fall, when the schools unveil their new names, we can then look forward to teaching our students about these exemplary individuals and imparting the lessons that they stood for throughout their lives.
Finally, though some may regret the division that the renaming has revealed in our community, the surfacing of fissures — as at least one committee member observed Monday — gives us the opportunity to come together and be purposeful in healing those divides, seeing past differences and uniting under our shared belief that every person is created equal.