It's not Fred Yamamoto they are upset about but Isoroku Yamamoto, an unrelated Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and to whom parents attribute WWII war crimes against the Chinese. Though "Yamamoto" is a common Japanese surname, the parents assert that it's a disrespectful choice for a school district that serves many Asian students and families.
"I am afraid renaming our school after 'Yamamoto' will not inspire our kids. Instead, it will confuse them and also hurt a lot of people's feelings," wrote Lily Wang in an email to the board.
Parent Vicky Huang attended a meeting about the renaming issue on Monday and told the crowd: "In this community, we do have families, their children in our school district, whose relatives and friends (were) killed in the Japanese invasion."
Like many other educational institutions across the country that are reckoning with the complicated histories of people their facilities are named after, Palo Alto Unified found itself confronted with the issue in 2015 after a Jordan Middle School seventh-grader researched his school namesake and discovered that David Starr Jordan, the founding president of Stanford University, was a leader in the eugenics movement. Eugenics was a 20th-century belief that some races are inferior and which promoted the reproduction of genetic traits of particular races over others.
Following a petition that garnered 425 signatures and the endorsements of several parent groups in the school district, the school board convened a committee to explore the issue and then decided unanimously last year to rename Jordan as well as Terman middle schools. 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. (The school board has declined to retain Fred Terman's name in the school name.)
At the board meeting last year, trustee Jennifer DiBrienza said that it is the responsibility of a public school system to support all students — particularly marginalized ones — in both action and spirit. Despite the fact that Jordan died more than 80 years ago, "deep-rooted bias didn't die with him," she said.
"It's still alive and well, even in our town," she said. "Our schools have to be the ones that declare in the loudest voice possible that we reject that, that that's not OK."
A second district committee convened last year narrowed down more than 1,600 public name submissions and presented its final eight suggestions for new names to the school board last week. Former Palo Alto Mayor Leland Levy, who co-chaired the committee, told the board that the 13 committee members had spent 2,000 hours vetting the community's suggestions and ensuring that none of the final nominees had questionable pasts.
The committee recommended six people — Ellen Fletcher, Frank Greene Jr., William Hewlett, Edith Johnson, Yamamoto and Anna Zschokke — and two geographical locations: Adobe Creek and Redwood Grove. The committee singled out Yamamoto as its top choice.
The school board is set to vote on the recommendations this Tuesday, March 27.
Inspiration versus neutrality
Renaming schools is nothing new in Palo Alto, though previous changes were prompted by mergers: Ray Lyman Wilbur Junior High became Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in 1985 when Jordan closed; Palo Verde Elementary became Sequoya Elementary in 1976 when Ortega Elementary closed; Elizabeth Van Auken Elementary became Los Ninos Elementary for several years and then merged with Sequoya in 1982, at which point the school was renamed Palo Verde.
The current renaming effort has by any measures been contentious. Even as it's proceeded, those opposed have advocated for reversing the board's decision, citing a range of reasons: the sentimental ties that graduates of the schools have with the existing names; the cost to rebrand the schools' uniforms, communications materials and signs; the lack of priority the opponents assign to the problem; allegations that the renaming is politically motivated; the risk of picking a name that could be problematic down the line; and, conversely, a lack of belief that namesakes matter to students.
To avoid a few of those issues, two school board members, Todd Collins and Ken Dauber, on March 13 supported renaming the schools after the inherently non-offensive geographical features, Adobe Creek for Terman and Redwood Grove for Jordan.
But committee members and those who know the stories of the six nominated persons say that the community would be missing out on an opportunity to inspire, teach and motivate students if it named schools after geography.
"Our preference is strong that the schools be named after persons. We recognize the risk that this represents. People are never perfect, but we believe the ability of individual lives to inspire our youth should not be lightly passed over," Levy told the school board on March 13. (See sidebar on the six nominated persons.)
Sara Woodham, a committee member and mother of the student who discovered Jordan's adherence to eugenics, noted that her son went to Duveneck Elementary, named after Frank and Josephine Duveneck, 20th-century Palo Altans who worked on behalf of social justice and environmental causes.
Duveneck Elementary had previously been named Green Gables, after the neighborhood.
"I believe strongly in the power of school names to set a tone and set a school climate, potentially to inspire," she told the Weekly. "You cannot argue that 'Green Gables' is more inspiring than 'Duveneck.'"
When she moved to California, Woodham learned about the people who built Palo Alto and about what the community stood for through the names of buildings, which she said she found meaningful.
"You feel good that these people existed," she said.
Others believe that naming has the potential to convey values important in today's climate and to today's youth. Carolyn Wilkins-Greene, the ex-wife of nominee and pioneering Silicon Valley technologist Frank Greene Jr., said that he set an example as he helped mentor minority students and women in the fields of math, science and engineering.
"Frank felt that if one got into something worthwhile, one should stick with it and be conscientious about it, not flighty — off one moment and on another moment," Wilkins-Greene said. "He had a very strong work ethic. Any students, he tried to convey that to them. One can be very smart but be lax and miss out in a lot of things.
"Frank's idea of living was showing up with enthusiasm," she said.
Terry Fletcher's mother, Ellen Fletcher — a nominee and former City Council member — championed the importance of taking action in the face of social evils.
"When I was young and she was telling me stories of growing up in Nazi Germany, what horrified her the most was how little opposition to Hitler she saw," the younger Fletcher said. "People either joined in enthusiastically or let it happen and didn't do anything. There was a sort of thoughtlessness. I got a big message that you can't let that happen and you can't be a person that stands by. You need to stand up."
After fleeing from the Nazis, Ellen Fletcher eventually arrived in New York at the age of 17 and had to work to support herself while getting both her high school and college degrees.
"She didn't let obstacles in her life stop her from achieving her goals and making a better world," Terry Fletcher said.
Shannon McElyea, the great-great-granddaughter of nominee Anna Zschokke (pronounced "SHOCK-key"), said that her ancestor is an example of courage: Zschokke, a widow with three children who arrived to Palo Alto in the late 1800s, attended Stanford and launched the Palo Alto school system with funds from mortgaging her home.
"She was really a pioneer," McElyea said. Zschokke demonstrated a "fierce dedication to her convictions and to making sure the Palo Alto children were taken care of. She didn't even want them walking 2 miles (to schools in the town of Mayfield). She said, 'No, we have to have a school here. And I'm going to do it.'"
"Just the way she powered through things: She was always building and growing and bringing people together."
Kelly Kim, the mother of a Palo Alto High School student, said that she admires Fred Yamamoto's character, calling him one of the "unsung heroes" of the Palo Alto community. Despite being forcibly detained in an internment camp in Wyoming after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he maintained his faith in democracy and his devotion to his country never wavered, the committee report noted. And he encouraged others to believe in the goodness of man.
"He wasn't trying to be a hero. He just had the qualities that makes a person a good person -- good inside," Kim said of the second-generation American who graduated from Palo Alto High School, attended a local Methodist church and was a leader among his friends.
"He wanted to do the right thing: joining the 442nd (Army regiment), helping his country. For him it wasn't 'What would I get out of it?'" said Kim, who wrote a letter of support for Yamamoto last week. "He did it for the fact that it was the right."
Individuals or groups?
One of the thornier debates raised by the renaming process has been how to consider the associations that names evoke. Palo Alto resident Robert Smith has been fighting to get the district to treat Fred Terman, who did not subscribe to eugenics, with respect after the board decided to drop his name from the middle school.
"The essence of eugenics is that people are judged by their heredity rather than their potential and contributions. This is exactly what is happening to Fred Terman: He is being lumped together with his father and dishonored because of his father," Smith wrote in a letter to the Weekly. "The district is missing a teachable moment in allowing this to happen by not emphasizing that we have to treat everyone as an individual, even someone named 'Terman' or 'Jordan.'"
Similarly, in an email to a parent on Sunday, school board member Melissa Baten Caswell wrote that using a "guilt by association" argument to oppose Fred Yamamoto "is exactly the action that was used to remove Fred Yamamoto and his family from their home in Palo Alto and place them in a prison camp in Wyoming."
Palo Altan Sheena Chin argued in an interview that by the board's own rationale — excluding the possibility of retaining the Fred Terman's name to avoid confusion and to fully sever ties with the father's legacy — Yamamoto should not be used.
"The last name does count," she told the Weekly.
"We're talking about the name of the school," Chin added. "We're not judging this person, Fred Yamamoto."
Terry Fletcher, the nominee's daughter, questions the appropriateness of not distinguishing between individuals with the same last name.
What, she asked, should happen to Palo Alto's Hoover Elementary School, named after the president but which could be mistaken as being named after J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director accused of serious abuses of authority? Or, Nixon Elementary School, which one could mistakenly assume is named for President Richard Nixon, who left office in disgrace, rather than Lucille M. Nixon, an outstanding mid-20th-century Palo Alto educator?
Some parents this week criticized one board member's role in the divisive debate. Collins, who voted for the renaming but now opposes using individuals' names, wrote in an email to a concerned parent that he was "disappointed" that the committee and perhaps other board members "seemed unaware" of the impact the Japanese surname could have on Chinese and East Asian families.
"While Mr. Fred Yamamoto of course was a second generation Japanese-American, and Yamamoto is a common Japanese name, it is hard to explain to a child why that particular name is honored when our schools have so many ethnic Chinese students and families," he wrote.
After reading this message, which was widely circulated in the schools community, parent Michelle Higgins wrote to the board and interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks asking them to publicly censure Collins at the next board meeting.
"I believe that Mr. Collins is conducting himself in a way that will stir up resentment within a segment of the Chinese community and create further division within and between communities," she wrote.
"Suggesting that a name is unacceptable because of its national origin is not a position that I would expect any board member to endorse," she wrote.
In an interview, Collins said that this was neither his intent nor position.
"This will bedevil us on any name," he said. "Whatever little upside there might be from inspirational names is in my mind wildly outweighed by the potential downsides and the divisiveness of the process."
In a message posted on Facebook on Monday evening, DiBrienza reiterated her opposition to naming schools after locations.
"If we are serious about dismantling structures that are holding some of our students back, that," DiBrienza wrote, referring to using only place names, "cannot be an option for this board."
Renaming offers an opportunity to "pay tribute to inspiring contributors to Palo Alto" and "to center women and citizens of color who are often overlooked in our history books, our history classes and our community conversations," she added.
People on both sides of the issue have said they feel saddened by the fissures in the community that renaming has exposed.
LaDoris Cordell, a retired Santa Clara County judge serving on the recommending committee, responded frankly to public comment at the meeting on Monday night, calling on Palo Altans to face "the tensions that exist in this community" among different racial and ethnic groups.
"It's become palpable," she said. "I encourage those of you in this room and I encourage the Board of Education to do something affirmatively about having these conversations so we can confront what it is we're feeling."
The school board is set to vote on the new names on Tuesday at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. •
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