By Thomas K. Pendergast
A San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) committee is recommending the City rename 39 schools, including 11 in the Sunset District.
The schools that are on the list include: Abraham Lincoln High School; James Russell Lowell High School; Herbert Hoover Middle School; Lawton Elementary School; Dianne Feinstein Elementary School; Thomas Jefferson Elementary School; Francis Scott Key Elementary School; Commodore Sloat Elementary School; Robert Louis Stevenson Elementary School; Ulloa Elementary School and Noriega Early Education School.
These names were recommended by the School Names Advisory Committee for changes based on the following “Guiding Principles”: anyone directly involved in the colonization of people; slave owners or participants in enslavement; perpetuators of genocide or slavery; those who exploit workers or people; those who directly oppressed or abused women, children, queer or transgender people; those connected to any human rights or environmental abuses; known racists and/or white supremacists and/or those who espoused racist beliefs.
The committee held its first meeting on Jan. 30 and another the next month. When the coronavirus threat started to spread, the meetings were put on hold. They continued with Zoom meetings starting in July.
But the move to change school names that some people consider offensive actually began in 2018 with the school board’s passage of Resolution No. 184-10A1, which called for the formation of such a group to “offer findings and recommendations … regarding the potential renaming of SFUSD schools …”
During a Sept. 23 meeting, SF Board of Education President Mark Sanchez spoke to the committee about its origins.
“This committee was born from a resolution that commissioner (Stevon) Cook and I authored a couple of years ago. Obviously, the timeline has not been met. We’re a little behind and more behind than ever because of COVID, maybe.” Sanchez said. “But I really want to appreciate your work and also that you are meeting consistently throughout this pandemic. You’re taking a lot of flak, obviously the board will too as it moves forward, but we’re prepared. This is a very diverse board, a very progressive board. And we are in a time right now where this kind of work has to be done for all of us…. So, yes all of us get ready for the backlash, of course, but keep working, keep strong and keep up the great work.”
And indeed, the backlash has already begun. During public comment at their meetings several members of various high school alumni associations expressed their opposition to the name changes.
A member of the Abraham Lincoln High School Alumni Association, Jacqueline Schwartz, spoke out against the 16th president’s inclusion in the list of names to be changed.
“He’s known for something extraordinary, and without him we might all be flying Confederate flags these days,” Schwartz said. She said the Alumni Association feels this change is “being railroaded through without our say.”
John Trasvina, president of the Lowell Alumni Association, spoke out against including Lowell High School on the list.
“In addition to being an abolitionist – strongly against slavery – (James Russell Lowell) wrote in every newspaper in the country against the U.S.-Mexico war because of the inhumanity of our war against Mexico in the 1840s. He was an inspiration not only for abolitionists during the 19th century but during the 20th century as well,” Trasvina said, noting further that Dr. Martin Luther King had referenced Lowell in his speeches.
According to a research paper put together by committee members, Lowell was on the list because, although admittedly an abolitionist, “his commitment to the anti-slavery cause wavered over the years, as did his opinion of African Americans” with Lowell allegedly writing at one point that “we believe the white race, by their intellectual and traditional superiority, will retain sufficient ascendancy to prevent any serious mischief from the new order of things,” according to the committee.
As for Lincoln, after a failed insurrection by Lakota warriors, he ordered 38 of them hung, which was carried out on Dec. 26, 1862. Initially, 303 Lakota men had been condemned to death by a military tribunal, but Lincoln spared the rest from the gallows by commuting their sentences.
During the next meeting, committee member Mariposa Villaluna, who was a vocal supporter of painting over the Victor Arnautoff murals at George Washington High School, opposed the inclusion of alumni association members in any community outreach.
“We should not include alumni associations,” Villaluna said. “I consider them members of the public that are not currently part of SFUSD.”
Committee member Kim-Shree Maufas brought up the subject of how much these name changes might cost the district.
“We’ve renamed a few schools in the last few years, so we should get information on how much that costs,” Maufus said. “Those are done and we can actually track how much those cost. Inherently, there’s going to be costs to add to this process. That shouldn’t prevent us from doing any kind of review or look but it would be nice to know.”
Committee member Adam Mehis had a different take on the cost issue.
“There’s a cost to white supremacy,” Mehis said. “When there’s a name on a building after somebody – that when people know that history – there’s trauma there. It affects people’s families … there’s an emotional impact there.”
Committee member Susie Mui-Shonk also weighed in on potential costs of changing school names.
“You only have so much in the piggy bank. You can’t blow it all because you only have so much money and so many resources,” Mui-Shonk said. “Certain schools like Lowell, they do have ‘brand’ and they have ‘cache.’ If you talk about a community, kids want to hang their hat on that kind of stuff. I would think so and I think if you talk to the alumni they would think so as well.”
“I get a little nervous when you call schools, that they have ‘brand,’ or they have ‘branding,’” Villaluna responded. “I think we should step back from language like that. The cost in having a name that inflicts violence, that represents violence, is greater than someone being able to get into a certain school. I want to get away from that fear because, with SFUSD values, we’re supposed to be fearless.”
The elementary school named after former San Francisco Mayor and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is still on the list because of a 1984 incident related to the Confederate flag flying in front of City Hall.
According to press reports, the Confederate flag had flown in front of San Francisco City Hall since 1964, as part of an 18-flag display intended to symbolize various stages of American history.
In 1984, when Feinstein was mayor, Richard Bradley, 34, wore a Union uniform, climbed the flag pole and cut the flag down and burned it. He was arrested and charged with malicious mischief.
The flag was replaced the next morning, presumably under Feinstein’s order.
Bradley once again climbed the pole, cut it down and was arrested again on the same charge. After that incident, Feinstein announced that the flag would not be replaced.
To view upcoming committee meetings, members of the public can go to this web address: https://www.sfusd.edu/connect/get-involved/advisory-councils-committees/school-renaming-advisory-committee.
This is so much overreach I don’t know where to begin. It seems entirely without public support or say, including students and alumni. Some names may need to be reviewed and subsequently changed after public input, but, please, Abraham Lincoln?
What next, Lincoln Memorial renamed to what — The Memorial??? Let’s employ some common sense and open a dialog as to public figures’ records to educate our citizens, not just wholesale destroy historical records by expunging names.
And alumni are part of the SFUSD –they are part of it, their kids attend schools in that district, and some are former teachers and principals. And by the fact they are alumni and interested enough even know about these changes and to comment on them, they should be allowed to. Otherwise, this board is unAmerican.
This is the first I have heard of Mark Sanchez, but it is clear to me he needs to go. He is touting that he has the power to do this based on a resolution that he and another board member passed. This is not progressive in any sense of the word — it is dictatorial.
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People have fallen asleep at the switch and elected people to run the board that when you look at their bios, have not really accomplished much. Consequently, it is no surprise that this is the type of agenda that they pursue, vs. doing any real work.
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Why Lawton School? Aside from the Spanish surnames in the Sunset District that start with Moraga Street and continue to the letter “y”, the other names are in obscurity and my belief is that few native San Franciscans are aware of why the memorializing of these individuals. I attended Lawton School from 1946 to 1953 and still have no knowledge of who “Lawton” was. He or she must have been someone who does not now meet the SFUSD criteria for being lily white in deed and action. Such nonsense. At the time of my attendance and I assume thereafter, Lawton held a distinguished position as an effective and high quality school and I personally find no reason to change its name. Like many facets of our current culture, the “bad, bad” people for whom our schools are named are all considered guilty and will have no advocates to prove otherwise. There are so many items in our society today that are vastly more important than this drivel. Pack It in–give it a rest. Put it on the shelf until COVID-19, the election and other more serious concerns are resolved. Perhaps the SFUSD representation is using the really significant issues to “hide behind” and may feel that their cause will be easier to get through under the current camouflage. Please give the responses which you receive your consideration; they represent sentiment, fervor and common sense.
Even if you don’t have children currently going to public school in San Francisco it is very important to vote in these elections because otherwise things like this happen. The board doesn’t answer to the mayor or anybody else. This is why there are no honors classes until eleventh grade and no algebra allowed in eighth grade because this board is out of control run by ideologues.
Alumni are part of the SFUSD. The students who graduated from these schools are part of the city and part of the district and part of the schools and to dismiss them and strip away their connections to their community is wrong.
Some names should be changed but others are just ridiculous over reach. Watch the archived meetings on the sfusd website and see they didn’t even know who these schools were named after, for example Roosevelt. They thought it was FDR when it was Teddy. They are doing lackadaisical google searches and missing so much context.
Mui-Shonk’s comment Lowell is a brand is right and it is a national brand not just city and state.
Sanchez’s comments are divisive and he’s already setting the stage that he and this group are right and anybody who disagrees are misguided. He’s running for re-election for the board and after reading this I’m not inclined to vote for him.
There is a budget crisis and schools can’t open and our children are sitting on zoom all day but this is what they want to spend money on instead of fixing the schools so they can reopen?
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Well said!! I agree with everything you stated. There are more important issues to deal with. This is getting ridiculous..just leave everything the way it is!!
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In egregious cases, especially where someone has been celebrated for the wrong reasons, renaming would seem appropriate. But in the case of people like Lincoln and Lowell, people who made positive contributions to the well-being of our country but were also imperfect, it would be much better to include their imperfections in the study of the history of out nation, something that reflects imperfections in our nation that need to be removed. That would make a more long-lasting contribution to understanding where our nation needs improvement than simply changing names of schools.
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In this vein I ask, why not change the name of the City itself? Or America’s name, or even OUR OWN NAMES? There is a terrible History involved in nearly every corner researched.
Take the money’s involved in changing the names of our schools and apply it to the education of our youth. Simple.
Then sack the fools on the board.
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1. What the schools should be called is Open.
2. Is the SFUSD funding this School Names Advisory Committee?
3. Please, fellow citizens, consider voting down any tax increase that supports this self-absorbed behavior.
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The school names have been associated with pride, traditions, camaraderie, connections, and so many more. I didn’t think of Lowell or Lincoln High School to represent James Russell Lowell or Abraham Lincoln and a 100th of their varieties of values and thoughts until now (LOL). This is the problem with heroism. Name a school after a hero or president. After 100 years, they became despicable and should be hanged if they were still alive. So sad, San Francisco is becoming the way it is. During a pandemic, and economic downturn, the Board wants to spend $$$$$$$ on name changing of schools. Perhaps we should also speed up the Metric Conversion Act so that our children can think mathematically better and when they grow up they can be SF leaders to spend taxpayers’ money more wisely.