School board ignored diversity policy while renaming schools

OPINION

BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor

It’s bad that the school board removed the names Terman and Jordan from two middle schools in Palo Alto. It’s even worse that the board didn’t follow its own rules in doing so, alienating a large group of residents in the process.

I don’t want this to be taken as a criticism of the district’s advisory committee, which spent a considerable amount of time weeding through all of the possible new names and offering a list of six excellent finalists to the board.

But the school board, in selecting the members of the committee, violated its own policy (#1220) that states: “The membership of citizen advisory committees should reflect the diversity of the community and repre- sent a diversity of viewpoints.”

The committee had no members of Chinese or Latin descent. Yet the district is 36% Asian and 12% Latino.

The Yamamoto controversy

That may explain why the committee’s top recommendation was for Fred Yamamoto. He was a 1936 Palo Alto High School graduate who was rounded up and put in a Japanese internment camp and then enlisted in the U.S. Army and was killed in action.

But to many Chinese immigrants, the name Yamamoto makes them think of Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese Admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many from China and Korea regard him as a war criminal.

“Imagine our students wearing a school t-shirt with this name,” said Tian Jiang, a parent who started a petition against naming a school for Yamamoto. “Are you using a World War II criminal name as school name? This is ridiculous.”

Where’s the diversity?

If the committee had been representative of the racial composition of the community, it’s doubtful Yamamoto would have been its top choice.

At Tuesday’s meeting, when the school board picked names for both middle schools, Trustee Ken Dauber had the right idea about delaying a decision until additional members could be added to the advisory committee to make it more reflective of the district’s racial composition. Trustee Todd Collins seconded his motion, but it failed to get the support of the other three trustees.

What would be the harm in waiting a few more weeks to rename the schools? There was no urgency surrounding this. No deadline faced the board. It would have been better to take time and do things right.

The argument was made that former Superintendent Max McGee went to great lengths to recruit Chinese parents for the committee, but had no takers. If there had been apathy among these parents at the time of McGee’s recruiting process, there certainly wasn’t on Tuesday night. The board room was packed with Chinese parents outraged over the nomination of somebody named Yamamoto. How hard would it have been for the board to have circulated a sign-up list of those Chinese-Americans who wanted to have a say in this decision?

Changing names was a mistake

As I have said before, I believe that renaming schools is a mistake. If Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan were alive today, I doubt they would have clung to their views on eugenics, which was the reason given for the renaming.

Renaming was a mistake because both of these men had numerous achievements that outweighed their beliefs in eugenics. And as educated people age, they abandon bad ideas and philosophies. Nobody holds it against former President Obama that he believed same-sex marriage was wrong until 2012.

Don’t read this as a defense of eugenics, it’s not. The Holocaust illustrated how horrific that belief was.

So it’s fitting that one of the new namesakes, Ellen Fletcher, was a Holocaust survivor as well as being an incredible volunteer for the Palo Alto schools, a council member and an advocate of bicycling.

I also applaud the choice of Frank S. Greene, who stood among technology giants Robert Royce, David Packard, Bill Hewlett and the Varian brothers. Besides his considerable achievements in semiconductors, he was the first technologist to break the color barrier in the local tech industry.

While I like the final selections, I wonder if there would have been a different outcome — maybe even a better one — if the recommending commit- tee was more diverse.

The controversy over the renaming raises a serious question in the district: Are Chinese and Latino families well represented in our schools when it comes to PTAs, site councils and other committees? Is the district doing all it can to involve them in our schools?

Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is price@padailypost.com.

11 Comments

  1. Fred Yamamoto needs to be recognized in a significant way, such as putting his name on a park or the district’s central office at 25 Churchill.

  2. When Chinese community members choose not to participate in the renaming committee, and then don’t attend any of the committee meetings, that were open to the public month after month, they can’t really cry out that the committee was not diverse enough and that the whole thing needs to be done over. The committee’s process was as transparent as could be. There were multiple postings on social media, in the newspapers, email distributions by the schools and PAUSD, information at local libraries, and yet they missed every opportunity to participate. This is hardly an unconnected group – they keep themselves extremely informed about what’s going on in the district. The fact that they cry foul when an American Japanese name is picked is very telling. Also, getting masses of people, from Taiwan and mainland China, to sign the petition against Yamamoto is badly played.

  3. The author should have consulted with members of the renaming committee before publishing this misleading opinion piece. The renaming committee did not ignore Board Policy regarding representation— this is a fabrication favored by one or two board members to try to throw Max McGee under the bus for the ethnic divide that reared its ugly head at the end of the process. Committee members worked very hard to gain a broad spectrum of representation on the committee. The members of the community that complained the loudest were specifically requested, repeatedly, to join the committee in the beginning. They refused because it wasn’t their priority (calculating GPAs to maximum advantage was the issue then), and ultimately because they opposed renaming. Despite this, the renaming committee gained the participation of well-respected Asian American community members who participated in the entire process, though not officially on the committee.

    The bigger issue here is that it’s hard to imagine any other community where this opposition to Fred Yamamoto on the basis of his surname alone would have been aired in public, much less taken seriously. Imagine opposition in England to anyone named Wilson because of an infamous Wilson, or in the US opposition to a Davis, or in India, a Patel. It’s ludicrous. Like Yamamoto, these are the 7th most popular surnames in their respective countries. The fact that this dispute even happened here is a blight on Palo Alto.

    Finally, having just returned from a student trip to DC, including a visit to the Holocaust Museum, our district has righted a great wrong by changing our school names so that they no longer honor individuals who vigorously promoted the ideas behind the holocaust. Though many people can take this long-ago homage to white supremacy in stride, the renaming committee has done Palo Alto a great service by righting this wrong. That wall needed to be torn down. Many thanks to the members of the renaming community for taking the time to do so.

  4. KimB seems pretty hostile to Chinese Americans. She says “They refused because it wasn’t their priority (calculating GPAs to maximum advantage was the issue then …” Any other put downs you can think of? Glad to see the committee wasn’t racially biased, ha ha!

  5. This was clearly a racist act by the chinese community. I’m sorry but this was a joke. Maybe we should now band Kim (korean) and Chang and Xi, Zhang from future street names and whatnot in America…. oh right that would be a bit racist…. Horrible Palo Alto even allowed this crap. Asian people need to work together and not against each other. Ridiculous they are trying to spread hatred. Chinese community look really bad in this this situation honestly.

  6. How is this a racist put down? Their focus on the weighted GPA issue was the reason the leadership of the WeChat group was too busy to join the renaming committee. That issue took up practically the whole school year. Not a put down, just saying what happened. And I followed the committee but wasn’t on it, so please don’t attribute any imaginary bias on my part to the committee.

  7. Fake, paperwork “Americans” were underrepresented on the thought crime/memory hole committee, what a tragedy. Isn’t it racist that these schools were named after U.S. citizens? Why not saintly Somali refugees or holy Syrian migrants?

  8. There was no way the school board would have named the school for Fred Yamamoto given its earlier decision not to allow Fred Terman’s name to remain on Terman Middle School, which was named for both Fred Terman and his father Lewis. It didn’t matter to the board, particularly Dauber, that Fred and Lewis were different people and that Fred didn’t believe in eugenics. It was the last name that mattered. So the committee’s recommendation for Yamamoto had to be rejected based on the precedent set regarding Terman. A good compromise would have been to name Jordan for Yamamoto and keep Terman as Terman, honoring only Fred, not Lewis.

    The idea that the school board was throwing McGee under the bus is laughable. Two of the five board members publicly called on him to resign last September, and he turned in his resignation a few days later. They already threw him under the bus. It was the board who voted to approve the composition of the committee. The board could have rejected the slate of committee members and insisted on broader representation, but it didn’t.

  9. KimB’s remark, that the Chinese parents were too busy on the issue of “calculating GPAs to maximum advantage”, shows the prejudice Chinese families face in Palo Alto. What’s wrong with wanting your children to get good grades and be accepted into the best schools? It’s unfortunate that people like KimB feel the need to shame families who strive for the best for their children.

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