School board takes up school renaming recommendations

A resolution to support the renaming of 44 San Francisco schools whose namesakes are thought to have dishonorable legacies was...

A resolution to support the renaming of 44 San Francisco schools whose namesakes are thought to have dishonorable legacies was formally introduced at the school board on Tuesday.

The recommendation to rename the schools was made by a panel formed after the Board of Education passed a resolution in 2018 to examine school names that reference historical figures. The board is now set to vote later this month on whether to support the recommendations, while affected schools have been tasked with weighing possible alternative names.

Tuesday night’s meeting marked the first time the board has formally touched the issue since the volunteer-run panel began meeting.

The committee’s guiding principles, approved in July, call for the removal of the 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.

Dianne Feinstein Elementary School is one of more than 40 San Francisco Unified schools being considered for renaming. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Dianne Feinstein Elementary School is one of more than 40 San Francisco Unified schools being considered for renaming. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The push to rename schools came after the 2017 death of Heather Heyer at the hands of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a protest over the removal of Confederate monuments. Since then, institutions nationwide have made efforts to grapple with the legacies of those whose names grace city streets, schools, parks and other sites.

But as the school board found in the debate over a controversial mural at George Washington High School, which saw board members pull back from a vote to remove the painting, it can be difficult to assess history in the face of public controversy and pressure. The renaming effort, too, has come under intense criticism.

Schools were originally required to suggest alternative names by October. That deadline, which was moved to December, sparked controversy due to the perception that the district was focused on renaming rather than reopening campuses in the midst of the pandemic. Mayor London Breed even called it “offensive” and urged the district to reopen schools.

“It’s really sad because our school communities are really excited,” said panel member Mari Villaluna. “It’s such a minority that gets a megaphone of the voice.”

Herbert Hoover Middle School is also on the list. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Herbert Hoover Middle School is also on the list. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Preservationists have remained part of the ongoing conversation, while some parents have urged a delay in the decision on renaming so that school officials can focus on reopening schools, despite assurances that the two efforts do not conflict.

“I urge the board to halt this renaming process,” Lope Yap, Jr, a frequent proponent of keeping the murals on full display, said on Tuesday. “You are placing your politics against your learning.”

The 44 schools up for renaming include Mission and George Washington high schools, Jefferson and Francis Scott Key elementary schools, and James Denman middle school.

Schools now have until April 19 to suggest alternative names that the panel will review. Students, a school site council made up of staff and parents, and groups like the English Learners Advisory Committee and African American Parent Advisory Council may submit names in order to formally weigh different perspectives. Members of the public may also email suggestions to the committee.

Francis Scott Key, Sutro, Jefferson and Junipero Serra elementary schools have already submitted alternative names for the panel to consider, Villaluna said. At Sutro, one suggested name is “Fearless” and another is John Harris, a Black San Franciscan who successfully sued former Mayor Adolph Sutro for being denied entry to swim at the Sutro Baths in 1897, inspiring more civil rights challenges.

“We just have a principal who really was very positive about the process and had fantastic leadership,” said Brandee Marckmann, a Sutro parent who chairs the school site council. “It wasn’t very controversial. This is a nationwide movement and it’s an exciting movement to be part of.”

The board will vote on whether to support the recommendations on Jan. 26.

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