BY JEN NOWELL
Daily Post Staff Writer
A majority of the Palo Alto school board spoke in favor last night of renaming both Jordan and Terman middle schools because their namesakes supported eugenics in the early 20th century, but one board member questioned why so much time was being spent on the topic.
“I don’t think middle school names are that important,” said board member Todd Collins.
Collins said his middle school in New York was named after a typewriter magnate, and no one knew why.
The renaming of the schools, while satisfying to the adults, won’t move the needle when it comes to the success of the students, Collins said.
There tends to be a focus on things that are important to adults in the Palo Alto school district, Collins said. But these same things are often an afterthought to students, he said.
Parent Althea Brown, who was on the district’s renaming committee, said it is important to think about the psychological and emotional impact these names have on students. It’s very important the students feel safe, she said.
The move to rename the schools started after Lars Johnsson, the parent of three children in the district, posted an online petition to rename Jordan Middle School.
Johnsson learned about Jordan after his son Kobi, who is now in high school, read a book for a seventh-grade class assignment that led him to want to know more about his school’s namesake.
David Starr Jordan, for whom the school at 750 N. California Ave. is named, was a proponent of eugenics, an early 20th-century movement designed to create a master race.
In February 2016, the school board voted unanimously to form a committee to research and review the names of all 17 schools in the district.
The committee issued its final report in December, and a majority of the members voted in favor of renaming both Jordan and Terman middle schools.
Terman was named for Lewis Terman and his son, Frederick. Lewis was a pioneer in educational psychology, who studied gifted children and popularized the IQ test in America. He was also involved in eugenics. Frederick is often referred to as the father of Silicon Valley.
Committee members found no reason to rename the 15 other schools.
Board Vice President Ken Dauber said he agrees with Collins in that as much time that was spent on the renaming topic needs to be given to other issues in the district. But he said he supports the committee’s recommendation to rename Jordan and Terman, adding that it will give the district a chance to talk about the names it wants for its schools.
An issue of values
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza said the decision isn’t difficult for her because neither Terman nor Jordan share the same values as the district currently does.
The very children that would have been impacted by Jordan’s and Terman’s beliefs are the same students the district is giving its focus to as it tries to address the achievement gap, DiBrienza said.
She said renaming the schools won’t solve the achievement gap.
But it is important for everyone that the names are changed, DiBrienza said.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell agreed that it is important to have school names that represent the district’s values.
“Once you see something, it’s very hard to un-see it,” she said in regards to learning the history of the schools’ namesakes.
If the community were to choose names for the schools today, board President Terry Godfrey said she doesn’t think Terman or Jordan would be chosen.
Dropping first names?
A few members on the renaming committee recommended keeping the Jordan and Terman names but dropping “David Starr” and “Lewis.”
Ben Lenail said that while Lewis had many negatives, his son, Frederick, was a “wonderful human being.” Frederick was an electrical engineering professor at Stanford who encouraged his students to start companies. His students included Bill Hewlett and David Packard who formed Hewlett-Packard.
The district shouldn’t penalize someone over a last name, Lenail said.
But committee member Jerry Underdal argued that you can’t separate first and last names.
Johnsson said only a full-renaming will provide a disconnect from the values these people held.
Collins warned about grouping Frederick in with his father, Lewis, who was a leader in eugenics. He said he would hate to be judged for things his father may have done.
Final decision soon
The topic will return to the board next Tuesday for a formal vote on whether to rename Jordan and Terman.