A recent petition created by a Palo Alto community member advocates for the renaming of David Starr Jordan Middle School because of the namesake’s support of eugenics, which is the belief that society can be improved by selective breeding.
Lars Johnsson, a Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) parent, hopes to acquire 500 signatures in order to persuade the PAUSD Board of Education to appoint a “citizen advisory board.” The board would deliberate and offer recommendations for a new school name. Discussion of the petition has been added to the Board agenda for the January 2016 meeting.
Jordan Middle School is named after the first president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, whose tenure at the university lasted for 22 years.
Jordan was an ardent advocate for in eugenics, arguing for the superiority of certain races in his 1901 novel,“The Blood of the Nation.”
“[David Starr Jordan] was one of the most vocal and influential leaders of the movement,” Johnsson said. “This is not the handiwork of a casual bystander. This is the crowning achievement of a lifelong obsession.”
Thus, petition supporters do not believe that David Starr Jordan’s legacy represents the values of PAUSD or the Palo Alto community. Teachers, parents, alumni and community members have offered alternative namesakes, such as David Downs, a long-serving industrial technology teacher at Jordan Middle School, and Lucie Stern, an influential Palo Alto community leader.
“By choosing to name district schools after particular individuals, the district is affirmatively endorsing such people as leaders worthy of this honor,” Christina Schmidt, chairperson of the Special Education Local Plan Area 1 Community Advisory Committee said in a statement endorsing the petition. “We want our children to associate their schools with leaders who reflect positive civic values, inclusion and equity.”
Some community members, however, see the goal of this petition as an attempt to rewrite or “whitewash” history.
“[Jordan] was involved in the peace movement, was an early environmentalist and was the first president of Stanford — all very important things,” Jordan math and science teacher Robin Levy said. “We have to view a person’s beliefs in conjunction with the times during which he or she lived. I’d really like to see this controversy used as a teachable moment in our classrooms.”
Johnsson decided to start the petition after his son, a seventh grader at Jordan Middle School, wrote a book report about David Starr Jordan’s legacy. After learning of Jordan’s involvement with eugenics, Johnsson began contacting PAUSD officials to learn of the process to rename the school. According to PAUSD Superintendent Max McGee, the decision to rename a school remains under School Board authority, not that of school administration, and operates in conjunction with a citizen advisory board.
“The Board encourages community participation in selecting names,” according to a Board policy. “A citizen advisory committee may be appointed to review name suggestions and submit recommendations for the Board’s consideration.”
The petition additionally cites several other schools that have undergone recent name changes. For example, opponents of the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary School in Long Beach encouraged the local school district to establish a community advisory board to evaluate the use of confederate references. No conclusion has been made of the name change of the school so far. The recent publicity surrounding the name changes of various schools may have contributed to the timing of the petition.
“The fact that both Princeton [University] and Amherst College are having or recently had similar conversations has made national news,” McGee said. “Princeton is currently considering renaming their Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.”
Supporters hope that this movement will translate to a potential name change for Terman Middle School, which named after eugenicist, Lewis Terman.
“There are several logistical challenges and some expenses,” McGee said. “We will be researching those. My sense is that they are not insurmountable obstacles.”