Community concern about losing East Palo Alto's recognition of Cesar Chavez with the phasing out of a middle school named after the Latino American civil rights activist and labor leader could prompt the Ravenswood City School District to re-evaluate all of its campus' names.
The district's Board of Education agreed Thursday evening to take action later this month on creating a citizen advisory committee, as required by board policy on naming facilities, that would review all campus names and make recommendations to the trustees.
Community members, led by City Councilman Ruben Abrica, raised concerns this summer about the potential removal of Cesar Chavez Academy's name. Since Ravenswood Middle School opened in 2017, it has been sharing a site with Cesar Chavez Academy, but this fall will mark the first year that the new middle school will operate as only one entity, exclusively serving sixth- through eighth-grade students.
"This is more than just a name," Abrica told the board on Thursday. "This is part of the culture of this community. He stood for human rights for everybody."
Board members said Thursday that the district did not go through a formal process for naming the Ravenswood Middle School. (In 2014, when the comprehensive middle school was still in the planning stages, it was actually referred to as Chavez Middle School, according to interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria. District presentations and documents later called it the New Middle School, then the Ravenswood Comprehensive Middle School and finally its current name.)
At least one trustee, Ana Maria Pulido, took issue at the time about what would happen to the Cesar Chavez name but she said her concern fell by the wayside during a change in leadership at the district office last year.
Pulido requested that the board consider on Thursday a resolution to guarantee a Ravenswood school would be named after Chavez. Board President Tamara Sobomehin said, however, that a district attorney advised such a resolution would conflict with board policy that requires the creation of an advisory committee to involve the community in the naming process.
Trustee Sharifa Wilson suggested that the district use this opportunity to consider all school names.
"I started asking myself, who's Brentwood? Who's Willow? Who's Belle Haven?" she said, "I think we ought to take this opportunity to put a task force together and ... have them not focus on a site but to develop a list of names that we can consider as we're moving forward with the consolidation" of schools due to declining enrollment.
Pulido and Abrica questioned whether there's a "double standard" within Ravenswood's recent school-naming history, given the district did not follow board policy and convene an advisory committee when Los Robles Elementary School and Ronald McNair Academy were consolidated at one campus. In that case, the district surveyed parents and allowed them to choose a new name that preserved both, Wilson said: Los Robles-Ronald McNair Academy. Board policy states that "the renaming of existing schools or major facilities should occur only under extraordinary circumstances and after thorough study."
Sobomehin said she supports retaining Chavez's name but that the board must follow its own procedures.
"If you don't have a process that allows the community to speak up and we just say, 'it's our decision,' the fear is that we're just making 'our decisions,'" she said. "We've got to design a process that brings in people."
Vice President Stephanie Fitch said she supports keeping Chavez's name and backed the idea of an advisory group but stressed that it should have a holistic, inclusive view on possible names, such as Larry Itliong, a Filipino American labor organizer who worked with Chavez but is lesser-known.
"In celebrating Cesar Chavez I like the idea of a list of names because although this community is majority LatinX, Latino, Latina ... and (they) do deserve to celebrate that, we also can't leave out the other people who do live here," said Fitch, who is Filipino American.
The trustees asked Sudaria to seek legal advice on how the board policy applies to the retention of an existing name. They plan to take action on the issue at their next meeting on Thursday, Aug. 22.
In other business at the first board meeting of the new school year, friction emerged over the district's newly launched strategic planning process.
Under Sudaria's leadership, the district created this summer a 21-member steering committee, including two board members, administrators, parents and community leaders, to lead the work of drafting a new strategic plan before presenting a final version to the board in December. The committee is set to meet six times over the next several months.
Pulido, who requested to serve on the committee, said Thursday that she's uncomfortable participating given it's unclear, she said, how the group was constituted and what the board's role would be in their work. The steering committee's task — to dig into Ravenswood's mission, values and priorities — is critical work that requires the involvement of the full board, Pulido said. She said tentative meeting dates scheduled during the work day could also limit public involvement.
"Although I think the strategic plan is necessary and needed for us ...I'm just disappointed with how a lot of this is initially beginning," Pulido said. "I can't participate in the steering committee until a lot of these issues get addressed."
Sobomehin, the other trustee on the committee, said that the strategic planning process has been designed to be collaborative rather than a "top-down leadership style." She emphasized that the steering committee has no decision-making power and that any recommendations it makes are subject to board approval.
The following people have been appointed to Ravenswood's strategic plan steering committee:
Erick Granados, Boys and Girls Club regional coordinator
Lisa Gauthier, mayor of East Palo Alto
Cecilia Taylor, mayor of Menlo Park
Freddie Rideau, parent/guardian
Louise Pahulu, parent/guardian
Nicole Sbragio, parent/guardian
Marco Duarte, parent and DELAC president
Jenna Wachtel, Ravenswood Education Foundation executive director
Amanda Kemp, Ravenswood Middle School principal
Ana Pulido, board member
Cindy Chin, director of student services
Gina Sudaria, interim superintendent
Randy Jackson, California School Employees Association (CSEA) president
Lizbeth Carlos, CSEA member
Ronda White, Ravenswood Teachers Association (RTA) president
Nicole Shelley, RTA vice president
Solomon Hill, director of technology
Tamara Sobomehin, board president
Viviana Espinosa, Costaño School & 49ers Academy principal
Paul Bains, Saint Samuel C.O.G.I.C., Project WeHope senior pastor
Nancy Magee, San Mateo County Office of Education superintendent