Palo Alto

Committee to Recommend to Palo Alto School Board That Two Schools With ‘Troubling Legacies’ Be Renamed

People who oppose the schools' renaming say, "To change the names of these schools would sever the connection with the past."

Jordan Middle School
Ryann Vargas

A group of Palo Alto community members on Tuesday is expected to recommend that two middle schools with "troubling legacies" be renamed.

The Renaming Schools Advisory Committee in a majority vote decided the Palo Alto Unified School District should rename Jordan Middle School and Terman Middle School. The committee also suggested renaming the former Cubberley High School if it is ever re-opened as a school facility.

All three schools were named after individuals who were prominent in the eugenics movement — which sought to improve human genetics through sterilization and by discouraging reproduction by people with undesirable traits, such as race and class. Lewis Terman, Ellwood Cubberley and David Starr Jordan are all namesakes.

Palo Alto resident Lars Johnsson started a petition to rename the schools in 2015 after his son completed a report about David Starr Jordan, who was Stanford University's first president.

“I feel very grateful there was enough momentum in the committee to take this issue for what it was,” Johnsson said. “People had the same reaction I had, which was it’s just not right.”

Johnsson was one of 13 committee members. The committee convened for nine months, hosted a town hall and gathered community input before voting and publishing a report.

The group voted eight to five to rename Jordan Middle, and seven to five to rename Terman with one abstaining vote.

“The names we use to identify the places our children are educated in have meaning. They are symbols,” the committee wrote in the report.

The report continued: “When we honor a person by naming a school after them, we are judging them worthy of our praise. We are holding them up as role models for our children. The legacies of three school namesakes, Jordan, Terman and Cubberley, are incredibly challenging to reconcile with our shared values.”

The report also acknowledges, however, that many in the community are unaware of the schools’ namesakes and have developed unique connections with each school.

Committee members who oppose the renaming wrote in the report that the school names also "connote very positive images. Yes, symbols do matter, and the images these names evoke are not of an ugly racist ideology, but of shared memories, community, and growing up. As decades have passed, these names have been decreasingly associated with their namesakes and increasingly with the place … To change the names of these schools would sever the connection with the past.”

The committee will discuss the recommendations with the board and its 61-page final report during a special board meeting Tuesday at 6:30p.m. The school board is then scheduled to vote during a regular meeting next Tuesday on whether schools will be renamed.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

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