District renaming of middle schools sparks controversy

Devon Lee

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On March 27, 2018, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) school board voted to rename Terman and Jordan Middle Schools after Ellen Fletcher and Frank Greene, respectively. This decision came with some controversy, when the Recommending School Names Advisory Committee proposed the candidate Fred Yamamoto, a Japanese-American Palo Altan who interned during World War II and later died in battle as a member of the U.S. Army’s 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. The problem came with the surname because of its association with Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor.

This decision has been in the making for approximately a year and a half, starting when the School Board decided to rename the two schools due to the past names adamant support of the Eugenics movement. Large due in part to the influx of public input to the district as a total of 1,500 names suggestions were submitted through electronic surveys, notices sent out to parents and students, and paper forms.

Since approximately half of the student population of Gunn attended Terman Middle School, many students have an opinion on this topic. One such student, Freshman Rishi Gupta, hopes that in the future, the district decisions will include more student voice. “There should have been more student input because, ultimately, it’s the students who are attending the schools” he said. Despite this slight hiccup, other students regard the renaming process as a success. Freshman Arunim Agarwal believes that the District handled the situation in a proper manner. “I don’t think that there were many big changes that could have been made,” he said. “I think that the district tried to get as much input as possible and yet still do it in a timely manner and also get it done without too much conflict, although some conflict happened, I think they did a good job of working they’re way around it.”

President of the Board of Education of PAUSD Ken Dauber believes that, though the renaming was an overall success, diversity codes were violated during the processes. “I felt that the committee did a very good job, but they did not meet the district’s policy requirement of a committee that is representative of the community and had no Asian American or Hispanic members,” he said.

One striking contrast in this change is the backgrounds of the former names and the new people representing the schools. It is commonly known now that Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan were active members of the eugenics movement, which can be defined as the movement to control the breeding of a population in order to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable traits commonly found by one race.

In recent years, eighth graders attending Terman Middle School were assigned an essay arguing whether or not the middle schools names’ should be changed. As a former Terman student, Sophomore Hannah Lee explains how informative the experience was. “I was at Terman [but] the name didn’t really affect me, and I only really learned about who Lewis Terman was when I was in eighth grade writing the essay about it,” she said.

Agarwal, who learned about this subject in eighth grade, revealed his opinions on the backgrounds of the former people named for the middle schools. “Yes I knew this because I think that we had this discussion in one of the classes in middle school,” he said. “I honestly felt surprised because I did not know about this at all so it struck me as a surprise and I guess it just sorta happens sometimes where they make a mistake and at the time it seems like a good idea.”

Dauber firmly reassures that this decision needed to get done simply based on the backgrounds of the previous people and how they reflected the community as a whole. “The old names were for people who had eugenic views that were inconsistent and really opposed to the district’s… fundamental beliefs,” he said. “The ability of each person to succeed in their own way… is not the belief of these Eugenicists so it was really important that we removed those names.” Despite the controversy and minor issues faced along the way almost everyone can agree that the renaming was a step in the right direction and will have a positive, lasting affect in the city of Palo Alto. “I think after a year or two people will be completely used to the new names and probably think it odd that they had different names in the past, so I don’t think it will be a difficult transition,” Dauber said.