By Thomas K. Pendergast
The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) will rename 44 schools, including George Washington High School and Abraham Lincoln High School, after recommendations by an advisory panel were accepted by the school board on Jan. 26.
With a 6-1 vote, the SFUSD Board of Education accepted the findings of a panel set up to choose which schools are named after historical people who are now considered unworthy of such an honor.
In the Richmond District, these schools include George Washington High School, Presidio Middle School, Theodore Roosevelt Middle School, Claire Lilienthal: Madison Campus, Claire Lilienthal: Winfield Scott Campus, Alamo Elementary School, Frank McCoppin Elementary School and Sutro Elementary, all of which were recommended for a name change by the School Names Advisory Committee.
George Washington High School in the Richmond District is one of the schools chosen by SFUSD to undergo a name change. Photos by Michael Durand.
In or around the Sunset District, these schools 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.
Abraham Lincoln High School in the Sunset District is on the list of schools slated for a name change.
“All the schools that are on the list, their names will be changed,” Commissioner Mark Sanchez said. “So, we just want to be really clear with our communities that that’s going to happen. Once those names come to the (school board’s) committee, the committee will vet them and then bring the final recommendation of each school’s name to the board to finally ratify.”
The names chosen by the advisory committee to be changed are based on the following “Guiding Principles”: anyone directly involved in the colonization of people; slave owners or participants in enslavement; perpetrators 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 advisory committee held its first meeting on Jan. 30, 2020, then conferred via Zoom meetings starting last July because of the pandemic.
The move to change school names that some people consider offensive began in 2018 with the school board’s passage of Resolution 184-10A1, which called for the formation of such a committee to “offer findings recommendations … regarding the potential renaming of SFUSD schools.”
“All the schools that are on the list, their names will be changed,” Commissioner Mark Sanchez said. “So, we just want to be really clear with our communities that that’s going to happen.
Just like the effort to destroy the murals about the life of U.S. President George Washington at his namesake high school by painting them over, this renaming effort began when Sanchez brought the idea to the school board. Since then, he was recently re-elected to that board in 2020.
The one vote against the recommendation came from newly elected Commissioner Kevine Boggess.
“Personally, I’m opposed to naming schools after people,” Boggess told the Board. “I feel like it’s not helpful for us to make heroes out of mortal folks and that it sets a bad precedent for us as we try to lift up values; instead, we lift up people in ways that it makes it harder to hold them accountable. It’s even extra worse to name schools after elected officials, people who are meant to be public servants and lifting them up as if they were heroes.”
During public comment at a Zoom meeting of the school board on Jan. 12, both opponents and supporters of changing school names called in to give their opinions.
The first was Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the George Washington High School Alumni Association, who was also a leader in the fight to preserve the Life of George Washington murals at that school.
“I urge the school board to halt this renaming process and not approve the resolution that is before you tonight,” Yap said. “The committee process was incomplete, inadequate and without expert scholars. Their search was deeply flawed.”
In a reference to national criticism of renaming the schools from both right-wing conservatives and left-wing liberal organizations, Yap implied that this issue appears to transcend the usual political divisions.
“This resolution is now getting national attention because you have decided to ignore historical facts, good or bad,” he said. “You are placing your politics over learning. You have now united Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Tucker Carlson, socialists and everyone in between in criticizing your name change and self-political intentions. Please start with more community involvement and with scholars. And think of students….”
The school board has been under intense pressure to reopen schools during the pandemic, and some critics have expressed concern that school officials should be focusing on that situation instead of renaming schools.
Another person commenting to the school board at that same meeting, Brandee Markman, chair of Sutro Elementary’s School Site Council and someone who called for the destruction of the George Washington murals, denied that the renaming effort was affecting whether or not the district’s schools were reopening due to COVID-19 restrictions, while also arguing that the vitriol of conservative pundits alone was worth taking into account.
“My school has actually gone through the renaming process,” Markman said. “Our students were excited to participate in choosing new schools’ names and, we’re done. So this really isn’t getting in the way of schools reopening for in-person instruction. We were lucky to have a principal who was very supportive of the process.
“And I also just want to comment that, personally, this is my own feeling, that if Donald Trump is angry that we are changing the names of our SFUSD schools, then we should do it. If white supremacists don’t like that we’re doing this, then this is obviously a worthy thing to be doing.”
Marcia Parrott, a former principal at Miraloma Elementary School, offered an alternative viewpoint.
“I support the concept of renaming schools and ask why you are not including all schools in the process,” Parrott said. “The original resolution listed examples of schools successfully renamed. It was their school communities’ choice, and they were not mandated based on a select committee’s recommendation.
“To do it successfully requires a thoughtful, inclusive structure that involves all school community stakeholders, time for discovery, engaged discussion and consensus,” she suggested. “We have an opportunity for all our district school communities to learn about the history of their schools’ names and to choose to keep or change them. Knowledge is power. And this educational opportunity would provide a new perspective on how we teach history and for our students, model how decisions are made together.”
Another person who was involved in the movement to destroy the murals at George Washington High School weighed in on renaming the schools.
“I think it’s a beautiful thing that SFUSD has been working on for over a year now, and I’ve personally been a part of a whole range of public meetings, including this one,” Julie Roberts-Phung said. “So I think the argument that there hasn’t been public comment at a public meeting is a little confusing to me. I think this is an opportunity for the school board to experience this white-lash and do the right thing.”