Lincoln, Washington, Feinstein, Lowell — San Francisco will rename 42 schools

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Faith E. Pinho
·4 min read
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FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2019, file photo, people fill the main entryway of George Washington High School to view the controversial 13-panel, 1,600-square foot mural, the "Life of Washington," during an open house for the public in San Francisco. San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education President Stevon Cook says he plans to introduce a solution at the school board meeting Tuesday, August 13, 2019 to cover the "Life of Washington" mural without destroying it.. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
People fill the main entryway of George Washington High School during an open house on Aug. 1, 2019, to view the controversial 13-panel, 1,600-square-foot mural "The Life of Washington." (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are no longer suitable names for public schools in San Francisco.

Explorers like Vasco Núñez de Balboa are out too, as is Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education voted to change the names of 42 schools because of alleged associations with slaveholding, colonization or oppression.

Those who supported the changes, which affect a third of the district's schools, said names should reflect the values of a community.

But opponents questioned why some names were included, while others said the focus should be on more substantive issues.

“What I view it as is an opportunity for our schools to embody the characteristics of and feel a sense of pride in the chosen name,” said board president Gabriela López, who voted in favor of the name changes. “This in no way erases our history. It cannot, and we will not forget the past. But we can honor the work that has been done to dismantle racism and white supremacy culture.”

Despite his august reputation as the president who led the Union in the Civil War and ended slavery, Lincoln is "not seen as much of a hero" by many Native Americans, according to a member of the renaming committee appointed by the school board.

Feinstein, who has an elementary school named after her, made the list because of controversies decades ago, around the time she was mayor, involving the redevelopment of a building that had housed Chinese and Filipino tenants, as well as an incident involving a Confederate flag at City Hall.

Through a spokesman, Feinstein, who has represented California in the U.S. Senate since 1992, declined to comment.

Each school has until April 19 to submit suggestions for new names to the renaming committee, which will then offer final options to the board.

Commissioner Kevine Boggess, the lone dissenting vote, said at Tuesday's meeting that he opposed naming schools after people, especially elected officials. He proposed a reexamination of naming policies across the district.

"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," Boggess said. "Instead, we lift up people in ways that make it harder to hold them accountable."

Before its decision, the board heard an hour of public comment.

"We're excited to have the opportunity to give our school a name that reflects our Latinx and Indigenous school," said a parent of a third-grader at Marshall Elementary School. "It's a gift."

Among the San Francisco schools that will get a new name is the storied magnet school Lowell High. Its namesake, James Russell Lowell, was an abolitionist but depicted Black people unfavorably in his writings.

Last week, somebody posted "racist, anti-Semitic and pornographic images and speech" on Lowell High School's virtual bulletin board. The incident changed the mind of at least one Lowell student, who had initially questioned the renaming proposal.

"Now is really the time," he said at Tuesday's school board meeting. "This work needs to be done."

Other speakers reminded board members of the merits of some historic figures, such as former presidents.

Some questioned the renaming committee's research process, with one person pointing out that Wikipedia was cited as a source.

Others questioned the focus on names, particularly during a pandemic that has left students at home struggling with online learning.

“Do you really think changing the name on an empty building is going to change anything that had been going on inside?" said Marcia Parrott, former principal at Miraloma Elementary School. "What is your goal? Racial justice? Inequality? How is that going to occur when there’s nobody in those buildings and won’t be for some time?”

Jeremiah Jeffries, a teacher and leader of the renaming committee, said each school name was evaluated against criteria developed during early meetings at the beginning of last year.

"We are unapologetically going after white supremacy, white supremacist symbols, and making these changes that people have been demanding for years," Jeffries said.

The committee presented its findings to the full board in November, to a wave of blowback from San Francisco and beyond.

Mayor London Breed questioned the timing of the decision, particularly when the board hasn't finalized a plan to get children back into schools before the new names are implemented.

Then-President Trump weighed in, too, retweeting a Daily Caller article about the recommendation and calling it “Crazy!”

In an October letter to the school board, several alumni associations decried the renaming committee's "anti-historical bias" and the cost of replacing school signs and jerseys.

Deputy Superintendent Myong Leigh estimated Tuesday that new signs would cost about $10,000 per school.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.