A majority of the school board agreed on Tuesday that two of the school district's middle schools should be renamed in light of their namesakes' leadership roles in the eugenics movement.
Recognizing an opposing view in the community — that to rename these schools would be to sever generations of alumni's ties to tradition and history — most board members said that in a public school district in 2017, however, schools cannot carry the names of men who actively advocated for policies grounded in a belief that people of certain races and disabilities were inferior to others.
"We are a public school district committed to educating everyone," said Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza. "I think it is imperative, as a district that espouses a growth mindset and that is working very hard to help all children succeed and reach their potential — I don't want to ask them one more day to walk into a building named after someone that didn't believe that they belonged here."
All five trustees said they support a majority recommendation from a district committee, convened last year to study and make recommendations on the renaming issue, to give David Starr Jordan Middle School a new name, and a majority said they also believe Terman Middle School should be renamed.
Terman's fate is slightly more complicated given its naming history, trustees said Tuesday. Terman was first named after Lewis Terman, a prominent Stanford University psychologist, when the school opened in 1958. When the school later closed and then reopened in 2001, it was named to honor both Lewis and his son, Frederick, an accomplished Stanford electrical engineer. There is no clear evidence, committee members said Tuesday, that Frederick played an active role in or supported the eugenics movement, as Lewis did.
One committee member recommended retaining the Terman name, but making clear that it honors the son, not the father. A majority of the committee recommended against this, arguing that "retaining the surname will not effectively disconnect the school from Lewis and does not effectively disavow his eugenics legacy," committee member and parent Sara Armstrong said Tuesday.
Lillian Hom, the parent of a Jordan eighth-grader, urged the board against taking "half measures," like naming Terman after Frederick or retaining the generic "Jordan" while dropping the full name. Some board members agreed.
"There is a certain convenience to not changing names, but if we were thinking of opening a new school and naming it, would we pick these names?" asked board President Terry Godfrey. "It seems like we would not."
School board member Todd Collins, however, said he was worried throwing out the Terman name entirely "feels like guilt by association."
"I think it's important as we respond to the mistakes of the past, that we not make our own mistakes in our effort to compensate for them," he said.
The board members' feedback followed a series of passionate comments, many personal, from parents and students about the impact of the schools' names. Almost all urged the board to support renaming Jordan and Terman, including unanimous statements of support from the Terman parent-teacher association (PTA) and site council and the Ohlone Elementary School PTA.
Parent Katie Talbot told the board that Jordan and Terman would have not believed in equal opportunity for one of her two sons, a Palo Alto High School special-education student.
"Terman the educator believed that only one of my children could learn, and he was wrong. Jordan, the all-around smart guy, believed that only one of my children should be allowed to have children of his own … and he was wrong, too," she said. "Please show our children that we're not just talking about inclusivity in this district, that we really mean it."
Ofelia Prado said as a Mexican mother of a Jordan seventh-grader, it was "negative and shameful and degrading" to hear that her child's school was named after a eugenicist. (In Jordan's writings, he called Mexicans "ignorant, superstitious, with little self control and no conception of industry or thrift" and also wrote that "to say that one race is superior to another is merely to confirm the common observation of every intelligent citizen.")
"You have to be a minority to feel the extent to which it affects some of us — not everybody, but some of us," Prado told the board.
Don Kenyon, however, who graduated from Jordan in 1951 and whose children and grandchildren also attended the school, argued for keeping the names. He described the positive experience he had at the school and the "superior education" he and others received there.
"Our job is not as a school district … to rewrite history," he said. "Our job is to teach history."
Jordan teacher Daryl Richard, who spoke on behalf of four committee members who penned a minority report against renaming, said that the school names are woven into the identities of generations of students and of Palo Alto itself. Board members acknowledged this on Tuesday, with board member Melissa Baten Caswell suggesting the district honor the community memories tied to the schools in some way if they are renamed.
While condemning the principles of eugenics, Richard, however, argued that renaming is "akin to going for the low-hanging fruit: It is easier to rename a school than change the values of its citizens or to close the achievement gap."
Collins similarly worried that renaming Jordan or Terman would not "move the needle" on the push to better support minority, low-income and special-education students in the district. The actual names of the schools they attend, he said, are less important.
"We have a history in Palo Alto of focusing on things that are of interest to adults, that are afterthoughts for children and a distraction for our district," Collins said.
"Does renaming solve the problem? No. But is it a distraction? No. We are by no means done working on this problem by changing the names," she said.
The renaming committee noted this issue is not unique to Palo Alto; there are examples of how the debate has played out at school districts, colleges and universities across the country. Locally, Stanford is in the midst of its own renaming consideration process, primarily in response to student concerns over campus buildings and streets named after Junipero Serra, the 18th century California mission founder who also led violent conversions of many Native Americans to Christianity. There is also a building at Stanford named after Jordan, the university's first president.
Recently — and notably — Yale University decided to rename an undergraduate residence named for John Calhoun. Calhoun's "legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a 'positive good' fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values," Yale President Peter Salovey said in a statement.
Noting Palo Alto Unified's "equally irreconcilable disconnect" between its mission and the legacies of Jordan and Terman, committee member and parent Lars Jonsson argued that a public school district must hold itself to an even higher standard. It was Jonsson's grassroots petition to rename Jordan that led to the committee's creation last spring.
"With all due respect to alumni and community members offended by needless and wasteful attempt to rename these two schools, the loss of treasured connections to a school name cannot supersede the need to model and provide a welcoming and inclusive environment to our current and future student generations," he said.
Some board members said the estimated cost of renaming — about $200,000 to cover both schools — is a secondary consideration that would not stop them from voting in support. They also endorsed a committee recommendation to add eugenics history to the secondary schools' curriculum, noting many community members' ignorance, including their own, about Jordan and Terman's connections to the movement. (The committee also recommended that Cubberley Community Center be renamed if it is ever reopened as a school given Elwood Cubberley's promotion of eugenics.)
Many parents urged the board Tuesday night to seize the opportunity to take a visible stand for the values it so often cites: equality, diversity and inclusion.
"I want the school board to remember that all the children are looking at what you do," said parent Rosemary McGuire.
"The time is always ripe to do what is right," she said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.
The board will vote on the renaming proposals at its next meeting on Tuesday, March 14. This committee was not charged with suggesting new names for the schools; Superintendent Max McGee has preliminarily recommended that a committee be formed to identify a new name for at least Jordan before next January.