Watch the Facebook Live video of the school board's discussion and vote.
After hearing impassioned public comment from more than 60 community members, the Palo Alto school board voted unanimously on Tuesday night to rename two of its middle schools, one after an African-American technologist and the other after a Holocaust survivor known for her decades of civic leadership in Palo Alto.
Trustees voted 5-0 to name Jordan Middle School after Frank S. Greene Jr., one of the first African-American founders of a publicly traded technology company, who later launched a venture-capital fund to support minority and woman entrepreneurs. Terman Middle School will be named after City Councilwoman Ellen Fletcher, who is best known for her advocacy of cycling and environmental issues.
The renaming of the schools stirred intense controversy in recent weeks for the district's consideration of Fred Yamamoto, a Japanese-American Palo Altan who was interned during World War II and later died in battle as a member of the U.S. Army's 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. Many members of Palo Alto's Chinese community staunchly opposed the surname for its association with Isoroku Yamamoto, an unrelated Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and to whom local parents attribute WWII war crimes against the Chinese.
The renaming also divided those who believe in the inspirational value of naming schools after people and those who urged the board to choose neutral geographic names to prevent controversy down the road. This issue had also initially divided board members, with a majority — Melissa Baten Caswell, Jennifer DiBrienza and Terry Godfrey — preferring individuals to place names.
Prior to the final vote, the board approved a motion 4-1, with trustee Todd Collins dissenting, to name the two schools after people.
They decided on Greene and Fletcher after a series of motions and amendments on their top picks from six individuals' names that had been recommended by a district committee.
An initial motion by President Ken Dauber to name one of the schools after Fred Yamamoto failed. Some trustees said this was not for their lack of support for honoring the man, but a desire to bridge divisions in the community that have been laid bare by the renaming debate.
"No matter what gets decided here tonight, we need to talk to each other more," DiBrienza told the standing-room only audience. "I think that because we are progressive Palo Alto, we either think we don't (have issues) or we don't talk about them but this has illuminated the issues that are in our community.
"Whether we pick Yamamoto or Adobe Creek or whatever else tonight, those issues are still going to be there," she said.
A proposal from Dauber to continue the committee process for a short period of time so that its membership could be more racially and ethnically inclusive was only supported by Collins. Both were concerned that the renaming committee had no Asian or Hispanic members, a procedural criticism also expressed by some parents and community members.
Lars Johnsson, the Palo Alto parent whose petition to rename Jordan launched the renaming process close to three years ago, told the Weekly after the meeting that his immediate reaction was "relief."
Johnsson launched a grassroots effort to rename Jordan after reading about David Starr Jordan's advocacy of eugenics in a book report written by his son, then a seventh grader at the school. The petition led to the formation of two district committees devoted to the issue of renaming and the board's unanimous decision last year to change the names of both Jordan and Terman. Like Jordan, Lewis Terman was a leader in the eugenics movement, though his son, Frederick Emmons Terman — a Silicon Valley pioneer for whom the school was later co-named — did not espouse eugenics.
Despite the unexpected level of friction the process generated, Johnsson said he was "very happy and proud of the community" and felt good about the names chosen. He received hugs and handshakes from community members after the board's vote.
Jenny Zhang, a Gunn High School parent who opposed renaming a school after Fred Yamamoto, told the Weekly that she, too, was happy with the final outcome. She was hopeful that the issue will ultimately help bring disparate community groups together.
"I'm glad everybody (spoke) out. This is a good step: We actually try to understand each other," she said.
Johnsson and Zhang were among the dozens of parents, students and community members -- including war veterans, a woman who had herself been interned during World War II and a mother who shares the common Japanese surname Yamamoto -- who testified to both sides of the debate late into Tuesday evening.
Many condemned the vitriol that has emerged in recent weeks, with barbed allegations of racism and marginalization coming from both sides.
"Please try to understand and respect other people's culture, views and feelings rather than accusing them, labeling them or teaching them how they should think and feel," parent Lynn Liu said.
Others argued that objecting to naming a school after Fred Yamamoto only because of his name amounted to discrimination.
"Asian-Americans have fought long and hard to be perceived as Americans, not automatically anything else because of our name and our face," said Mike Kaku, co-president of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Sequoia chapter.
In a statement read on their behalf, eight of Fred Yamamoto's nieces and nephews said that their uncle "would have regretted how much time and attention has been squandered regarding the Yamamoto surname, hijacking the focus away from the real issue at hand of promoting and honoring future role models for students.
"But," they said, "he would just respond that there is much work to be done."
Board members described Greene as a minority ahead of his time in working to lift people of color and women up in the tech world, an industry that still struggles with equal racial and gender representation. He founded a venture capital firm focused on support for women and minority startups.
They said Fletcher was inspiring for not only her contributions as a longtime community volunteer but also "the symbolism of her having been the subject of discrimination," Dauber said. Fletcher witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany and immigrated to the U.S. as a young woman.
Both Greene and Fletcher would have been targeted by the eugenics movement, DiBrienza noted.
In an email to the Weekly after Tuesday's vote, the daughter of Ellen Fletcher lauded the board for "fully repudiating the ideology of eugenics not only by renaming the school, but by renaming after someone whom the eugenics movement would have considered inferior and unworthy because she was a Jew.
"My mother never sought out recognition or honor for her decades of hard work and public service. She just wanted to make Palo Alto and the world a place with clean air, safety and peace," Terry Fletcher said. "She fought for a world in which no one would have to suffer the kind of persecution she and her family experienced from the Nazis. I hope her example can inspire all of us to do the same."
The school board voted last year to use school bond funds to cover the cost of renaming, approximately $60,000.
Read more about Greene and Fletcher here.