The San Francisco Board of Education may bring in a panel of experts to help strip from The City’s public schools the names of controversial historical figures who have done “harm to humanity.”
A resolution authored by board Vice President Stevon Cook and Commissioner Mark Sanchez would establish a blue-ribbon panel of experts in fields such as history, the arts or ethnic studies to investigate the appropriateness of school names and forward name suggestions to the board. The panelists would be appointed by San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Vincent Matthews and ratified by the school board by the start of the 2018-19 school year. The board is expected to vote on the resolution in the coming weeks.
The resolution states the board “finds it necessary” to engage communities in a larger discussion around the relevance of public school names in present day and to determine the “appropriateness of schools” named after historical figures who engaged in slavery, female oppression or whose actions led to genocide or infringed on the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” of humans.
“We owe it to ourselves to look at all the names and determine which names merit further consideration,” Sanchez said. “That’s what the panel would do, and then engage the school in the process.”
The panel would convene for “a year or two” to investigate historical figures and the appropriateness of school names, according to Sanchez, then hold public meetings before making its recommendations to the board. The resolution states the blue-ribbon panel will be dissolved by 2020.
Details of the panel’s composition and responsibilites were addressed at an informational hearing on the resolution on Tuesday.
Cook said he envisions an “advisory committee-type of setup that is volunteer-based and has an application process.”
Sanchez recommended that the panel include representatives of The City’s Human Rights Committee, the Commission on the Status of Women and the local chapter of the NAACP, to name a few.
Over the last three decades, more than 50 schools have been renamed to honor historical figures or to uplift communities in a process that was largely voluntary. Last year, the board updated a policy addressing the naming of district-owned facilities, allowing for the creation of a advisory committee to review name suggestions.
Sanchez identified Fairmount Elementary School, located at 65 Chenery St. in Glen Park, as an example of a school that is seeking to change its name to honor labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta. Fairmount is currently undergoing an internal community process to initiate the renaming.
The resolution would be a separate process to address “schools that wouldn’t come to us for a name change,” according to Sanchez.
The effort is part of a larger movement across the country to reexamine historical figures, icons and names of institutions, schools and streets in an effort to address past wrongdoings. In New Orleans, four statues commemorating confederate leaders were removed last year, and San Francisco leaders recently voted to remove a controversial monument depicting a Native American sitting at the feet of a Mexican vaquero and Franciscan monk.
In 2016, school board Commissioner Matt Haney called for the renaming of schools such as George Washington High School, sparking a national debate. Washington was a slave owner.
Haney called the resolution “thoughtful, deliberate and intended to ensure that the voices of our schools communities lead this process,” adding that its intent was not to “force a conversation at a [school] like Washington,” but to establish a districtwide process that is “available and clear to school communities who want that conversation.”
“We have very few schools in our city that are named after important Latino or Chinese individuals,” Haney said. “In light of the fact that these are the two largest student communities … they should see themselves more fully reflected in the names of the schools they attend.”