In a move that has drawn heavy criticism from some quarters, including Mayor London Breed, the San Francisco Board of Education on Tuesday voted to move forward with renaming 44 San Francisco Unified School District schools.
Commissioners approved the resolution 6-1, with Commissioner Kevine Boggess dissenting. The School Names Advisory Committee will gather input from parents, teachers and student and submit possible new school names to the board in April for a vote.
The schools up for a name change were chosen by the School Names Advisory Committee, which was formed in 2018 amid a nationwide movement to strip public institutions of names tied to white supremacy or any other form of oppression.
“This resolution came to the school board in the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville, and we are working alongside the rest of the country to dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture,” Board President Gabriela Lopez said. “I am excited about the ideas schools will come up with.”
The committee focused on the removal of names of people directly involved in colonization, enslavement, genocide or racism, exploiters of people or workers, and direct oppressors of women, children, queer or transgender people. They are meant to be replaced by names that are grounded in justice or bring joy, recognize positive contributors to San Francisco, reflect the land’s topography, honor ancestral land, and reflect San Francisco’s diversity.
The vote came shortly after a lengthy hearing on a recent racist incident at Lowell High School that highlighted the ongoing tensions over race within the district.
“Students in our district this summer emailed all commissioners, and specifically Lowell students and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts students, listing demands specific to removing white supremacy and racist culture from their schools,” Board member Alison Collins said. “So, it does fall in line with what we’re hearing from students and specifically students of color. It is not fluff, or packaging or performative, it is actually meaningful work.”
However, the process has drawn fire from some parents and students who remain frustrated that it is taking place at a time when schools remain closed due to COVID-19 and many students are struggling with distance learning. Although the district had initially planned to reopen schools in phases starting this month, the district put those plans on hold in December after it failed to reach a deal with labor unions over COVID-19 safety measures in time.
Breed on Wednesday issued a statement calling for the school board to focus on reopening schools.
“I understand the significance of the name of a school, and a school’s name should instill a feeling of pride in every student that walks through its doors, regardless of their race, religion or sexual orientation,” Breed said.
“What I cannot understand is why the school board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then. Our students are suffering, and we should be talking about getting them in classrooms, getting them mental health support, and getting them the resources they need in this challenging time,” she said. “Let’s bring the same urgency and focus on getting our kids back in the classroom, and then we can have that longer conversation about the future of school names.”
Other critics have objected to specific name changes and have noted the lack of involvement by historians.
Schools on the list include Lowell High School, James Lick Middle School, Junipero Serra Elementary School and George Washington High School, among others. Controversially, Dianne Feinstein Elementary also made the list, based on a 1984 incident when Feinstein was mayor where she supported the display of a Confederate flag outside City Hall as part of a historic display, and replaced it when it was torn down.
“I go to a school where I’m proud of the name, June Jordan. And another thing I really love about it is that because she was a poet, we get to use her poetry,” Student Commissioner Kathya Correa Almanza said during the meeting. “That being said, I really understand the power of having a school that you’re proud of.”
Board member Mark Sanchez, who authored the resolution in 2018, said he’d like to see schools named after more recent historic figures like Michelle Obama and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
– S.F. Examiner Staff
Bay City News contributed to this report.