Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.
Do you know the origin and meaning of your school’s name? How does the name represent the values of your school and community? What significance does it have for the current students and alumni?
How would you feel if you attended a school named for a former slaveholder, regardless of that person’s other accomplishments or importance in American history? Is it appropriate for school districts to rename schools if they decide that the celebrated person no longer represents the values of their community?
In “San Francisco Scraps 44 School Names, Citing Reckoning With Racism,” Bryan Pietsch writes:
The San Francisco Board of Education voted this week to rename 44 of its schools named after prominent figures, in an attempt to purge the district of homages to what it said were controversial people with ties to racism, sexism or slavery.
Schools named for historical figures, including Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, as well as current ones, like Senator Dianne Feinstein, are set to be renamed.
Following the unrest in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, which led to the killing of a protester by a white supremacist, the board moved in 2018 to establish a commission to evaluate renaming schools to “condemn any symbols of white supremacy and racism,” said Gabriela López, the board president.
The commission had decided that schools named after figures who fit the following criteria would be renamed: “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The school board’s decision — which passed on a 6-to-1 vote on Tuesday — to rename 44 of the district’s 121 schools was criticized by some as inappropriate amid the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty over when students will be able to return to classrooms.
Yukina Grady, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School who is half-white and half-Japanese, said she was “somewhere in the middle” regarding the name change, adding that there was “a lot more that schools could and should be focusing on” in dealing with racism than simply renaming schools.
“This is a great discussion to be had,” she said, but “with everything going on with Covid, I wonder if we should be focusing on other things.”
The article continues:
The commission, whose members include teachers, students, former board members and others in the community, found that George Washington — a slaveholder for whom a San Francisco high school is named — fit its criteria for renaming.
Lincoln, who had a high school in the city named for him and also made the list, has been criticized for his response to the so-called Minnesota Uprising, in which more than 300 Native Americans were sentenced to death by a military court after being accused of attacking white settlers in 1862. Lincoln said he found a lack of evidence in most of the cases and reduced the number of condemned to 38, who were hanged in what was thought to be the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
The list of schools set to be renamed also includes lesser-known figures, such as James Denman, a former superintendent of the school district who denied Chinese students an education.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
Should we rename schools named for public and historical figures with ties to racism, sexism or slavery? Why or why not? Why does a school name matter? What danger is there in removing these names? What is the possible harm or hurt if we keep them? How does your own identity or life experiences shape your views and perspective?
Reflect on the names of your schools — past and present: Do you know whom they have been named for and why? Do you believe these figures represent the values of your school and community? Have you ever attended a school whose name you felt was problematic or should be changed? If so, explain why.
What is your reaction to the decision by the San Francisco Board of Education to remove the names of 44 public schools — including some named for celebrated figures in American history like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln? For example, does Lincoln’s role in the execution of 38 Native Americans justify the removal of his name from school buildings? What do you think of the criteria the board used to make its determination, such as removing the names of figures “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings whose actions led to genocide” or “who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Are they helpful and instructive, or too broad, subjective and easily misapplied? If you were a member of the school board, what criteria would you use to evaluate whether school names should be changed?
One community member, who identified herself as Julie, said, “The heroes that we choose to name our schools after are opportunities for our children to see who’s important to us.” However, San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, said, “What I cannot understand is why the School Board is advancing a plan to have all these schools renamed by April, when there isn’t a plan to have our kids back in the classroom by then.” And, Yukina Grady, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School, said there’s “a lot more that schools could and should be focusing on” in dealing with racism than simply renaming schools. Which of these arguments resonates most? Which do you find less persuasive?
If you could help rename an existing school, or name a new one, which cultural heroes, past or present, famous or little known, would you like to see celebrated?