Incorporating the topic of eugenics and the city’s history with that practice into lesson plans at Palo Alto schools is an idea gaining traction among members of an advisory committee.
The Renaming Schools Advisory Committee is reviewing whether Palo Alto Unified School District should rename three schools whose namesakes advocated eugenics in their day: David Starr Jordan, Lewis Madison Terman and Ellwood P. Cubberley.
The 14-member committee is expected to make a recommendation in December or January to the school board.
Trustees formed the committee earlier this year to review the names of all district schools after hearing from students, parents and community members hurt and angry that Jordan Middle School is named after someone who would be considered a racist today.
Jordan, Stanford University’s first president, believed the human race could be improved through selective reproduction, including forced sterilization. His support of eugenics was the subject of a book report by Kobi Johnsson, who attends Jordan. His father, Lars Johnsson, serves on the committee.
At a meeting on Monday, a majority of the committee members supported renaming Jordan.
“(Jordan’s) lifelong goal was to impose eugenics and he saw nothing wrong with this,” Jerry Underdal said. “Those are wrong principles for a public school education system.”
A couple of members staunchly oppose the name change. Their reasons range from wanting to preserve the school’s name for the sake of alumni and continuity to believing that simply erasing history does nothing to teach students today.
Stan Hutchings said renaming the schools is a “feel-good cop-out” that has no community buy-in.
Hutchings said he thinks the rename will end up costing each school about $500,000, and the change won’t necessarily make students feel more included.
In response, the senior Johnsson said the proposal for the name change is not intended to hurt alumni. “It’s for our children who go to the school now.”
Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey, who moderated the meeting, handed out an estimate that showed it would cost about $53,000 to rename each school.
Sara Armstrong, who supports the name changes, said she “objects vigorously” to the estimate. She said the numbers are inflated because they include costs that are not comparable. For instance, the cost of replacing the name on the marquee includes a digital upgrade.
Autrey said he used conservative estimates. The results, however, are still much less than the $200,000 to $300,000 per school that district administrators initially projected, Autrey added.
For many on the committee, cost is not an issue and the decision to rename the schools should be considered regardless.
Eva Mureithi, who supports the name change, said Jordan and Terman’s beliefs are antithetical to the district’s mission and vision statements that promote inclusion and the promise to see the potential in all students.
Mureithi said what a student noted earlier this year — that if Jordan’s beliefs prevailed in the district today, half the students wouldn’t be accepted — resonates with her .
Daryl Richard, a teacher and yearbook adviser at Jordan, said she doesn’t object to dropping the name. But she pointed out that most don’t call the school “David Starr Jordan Middle School.”
“People don’t know it as a … Jordan eugenics school or the Jordan KKK school,” Richard said.
Dropping the Jordan name altogether erases eight decades of history and the committee “doesn’t have a stake in it like the people who went to the school,” Richard added.
Richard said she prefers to drop the “David Starr” part, retain the school’s name as Jordan Middle School and continue treating eugenics as a part of history.
Armstrong then proposed that regardless of whether the district chooses to rename or retain the names, the district should incorporate age-appropriate curriculum to teach students about eugenics and how it overlaps with Palo Alto’s history.
A Palo Alto resident in the audience, Darin Pace, suggested going a route other cities have adopted, educating students who would be affected and letting them vote on whether to change the name rather than renaming the schools arbitrarily.
“I bet you those kids won’t disappoint you,” Pace said.
Members plan to finish position papers for and against the name changes and reconvene after Thanksgiving to formulate a recommendation to the school board.
The committee has worked to review school names in the district since the spring. Last week, the committee organized a town hall with four panelists — Tony Platt, Mary Rorty, Milton Reynolds and Joseph Brown — who study topics intersecting history, race and social justice.
The panelists shared a range of ideas, from Platt, a UC Berkeley scholar, stating that he personally would not want to be associated with a school named after an eugenicist, to Rorty, a professor at Stanford Medical Center, sharing that changing the schools’ names doesn’t solve anything and might instead make it easier to forget, and repeat, history.
Reynolds, from the Oakland-based nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, said it’s “imperative for our actions to demonstrate our intentions.”
And, Brown, associate director of Stanford University’s Diversity and First Generation Office, urged the district to use this moment as an opportunity to adopt a more inclusive message.
Image via WikiMedia Commons
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