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The case for renaming schools

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George Washington High School, in San Francisco’s Richmond District, is among the public schools in The City that bears the name of a historical figure with a questionable legacy. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/2016 Special to S.F. Examiner)

What’s in a name? It’s an importation question we’ve been considering as commissioners on the San Francisco Board of Education.

It has long been a tradition to name schools after historical figures who have made significant contributions to our community. Most of those figures have been male, and most often white. In some cases, they are people who either made statements or committed acts that make us at the very least question their legacies; in some cases, they are people who completely abased the communities we now serve as a school district.

This discussion of changing names of public institutions and taking down public statues, particularly ones that serve to honor the Confederacy, has become more prominent across the country, especially with the rise of white supremacists who have been given implicit and explicit permission to come out in the open to display their bigotry by our so-called president. The Palo Alto Unified School District most recently led a community process to change the name of David Starr Jordan Middle School and Lewis Starr Middle School. These two men were early leaders of the American Eugenics movement, helping to pass state laws that led to more than 60,000 forced sterilizations that targeted poor young Latina women; it was a strategy for ending races they believed to be “unfit” and of “inferior” intelligence.

Recently, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu removed four statues commemorating Confederate leaders, including an 80-foot-tall statue of Robert E. Lee. During his eloquent speech on the issue, Landrieu shared that the statues were erected by Confederate sympathizers called The Cult of the Lost Cause, which aimed “through monuments and other means to rewrite history and hide the truth.”

In San Francisco, we’ve had a long tradition of changing school names that no longer align with our values. We’ve renamed upward of 50 schools in the past 25 to 30 years to praise and recognize local and national figures who have created incredible legacies and come from diverse backgrounds, such as Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Malcolm X and Harvey Milk. We commend the school communities that have taken on the challenge to make these changes.

SEE RELATED: S.F. school board head calls for renaming slaveowner branded schools

We have introduced a resolution to have a comprehensive look at the facilities named after people who do not represent the values of access, equity and social justice that we believe in as a district. We are recommending that the San Francisco Unified School District create a blue-ribbon panel of community members who can take on this important work. We believe this is a responsible way of creating an intentional process that considers the voices of our schools, the legacy of the people whose names they bear and how to continue to promote the legacy of local and national heroes who we believe represent the rich diversity of our school communities.

We’d like to commend Commissioner Matt Haney for his leadership on this issue. We think the spirit of his remarks concerning the renaming of schools after people who owned slaves were commendable and have led us in a forward-thinking direction. This resolution seeks to create a forum for the exchange of ideas amongst our district stakeholders to ensure the voices of our students, educators and residents are heard.

So what’s in a name? We believe the name of a public school is a testament of our values and the legacies we cherish, and should represent the aspirational possibilities we want for all of our children.

Stevon Cook and Mark Sanchez are commissioners on the San Francisco Board of Education.

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