The San Francisco Solution

Lily McLean, editor-in-chief

The San Francisco Unified School District has many problems, but the one it has chosen to target in recent weeks is the issue of whether or not the names of various schools should be changed to address issues of racism. The School Board’s answer? Yes, they should

As SFUSD’s 57,000 students continue to learn from a distance, the Board has announced a plan to rename 44 of its schools. In a widely-shared spreadsheet, anonymous contributors have shared notes on the rationale for renaming schools, from Abraham Lincoln High to El Dorado Elementary.

Some of the arguments put forth in this spreadsheet are easily followed, even if they are controversial: the Board posits that the names of the likes of George Washington and James Madison should be removed from school names because these men were known to be slave owners. But at other times, a reader might find it challenging to follow the logic of the Board. For instance, the district is choosing to rename Clarendon Alternative Elementary School because it is named after the street on which it is located. This street, in turn, is likely named after a South Carolina county that itself was first named when that state was one of the 13 colonies. And it doesn’t stop there. The county was named for one Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, a British member of Parliament who was eventually impeached for violating the rights of English prisoners.

Few would argue that Hyde is the kind of role model one should name schools after, but the reasoning for this renaming makes very little sense. Edward Hyde may have been the Earl of Clarendon, but the title is one that has been shared by multiple people throughout British history. Additionally, given that the school was not even intentionally named after Hyde but instead for the street on which it is located, there seems to be nothing malicious about the name. Hyde may have been a bad person, but he’s not well-known today, especially not to elementary school students in San Francisco. How this particular decision benefits anyone is unclear.

Other targets for renaming include Dianne Feinstein and Paul Revere. Feinstein is out because of a complex incident involving a Confederate flag flown from City Hall during her time as Mayor of San Francisco. She was not necessarily responsible for the flying of the flag and the issue began long before she was in office. One can, however, see the reasoning for this choice, even if not all will agree with it. However, Revere is out because of a History.com article which the contributor for his entry incorrectly interpreted. Revere served in an unsuccessful attack against British forces during the Revolutionary War when he led the Penobscot Expedition. The writer of his entry wrongly inferred that he was part of efforts to colonize the Penobscot Tribe. Many other more justifiable cases are still linked solely to Wikipedia, which is troubling, given that even middle school students are taught that not use these kinds of tertiary sources in research. The entry for Mission High School notes that all missions in California are connected to colonization but provides no source. Even if this claim is common knowledge, it seems highly questionable not to include any references.

In a high-profile decision, the Board has chosen to rename Lowell High School, which was named for the poet James Russell Lowell, an abolitionist who also worked to ensure that Black Americans could one day vote. In the latest version of the renaming spreadsheet, the authors correctly point out some of his racist statements and fully source their claims. However, the original entry and public reasoning for renaming the school was lacking in details and contained only an unsourced quote from James Russell Lowell’s Wikipedia entry. Now that the authors have completed their research, a reader might understand the decision to rename Lowell. But starting off with such inconsistent analysis only weakens the Board’s argument.

What is worth noting is that race and racism have both been huge issues at SFUSD schools, particularly at Lowell High School. One can understand the motivation for trying to remove racist associations from an institution that has had a multitude of unsavory incidents. Only last month, students anonymously wrote incredibly racist messages on a public Padlet that was part of a class that had touched on racism. Using slurs and violent language, multiple students participated in this until it was shut down. Previously, students had posted images with racist connotations during Black History Month. The school has dealt with these incidents each time, but clearly with little success.

But is changing the school’s name really a good way to combat systemic racism? The choice has predictably generated a skeptical and even scathing response from conservatives, who have painted San Francisco as a cautionary tale of leftist governing. More surprisingly, many progressives have also criticized the choice as insensitive and a prime example of bad timing.

Public school students in San Francisco, who are disproportionately low-income and people of color, are struggling. Their schools have been closed since mid-March, and SFUSD has offered up no dates, even tentative ones, for reopening. Meanwhile, many of the city’s private schools, which tend to attract wealthier white students, are either fully open or offering hybrid learning setups to their students. And despite early efforts to furnish students in need with laptops, kids in San Francisco schools are still falling behind. A loaned Chromebook is useless if a student lacks at-home internet access. With public libraries only offering curbside service, many students can’t even turn to the usual resources for help during this trying time. One can imagine how difficult it must be for parents who are struggling to financially support their families or who are not fluent in English to assist their kids with remote learning. Students are stuck in a kind of limbo, fully aware that they are not necessarily where they need to be academically, but with no end in sight. How can families who are facing so many obstacles support a policy that is estimated to cost up to $1 million? Even if this plan will not be implemented any time soon, it has predictably generated an outcry from those who are struggling the most.

As for the issue of racism, renaming schools seems more like a diversionary tactic than anything else. Will Lowell be a less racist institution if it no longer bears James Russell Lowell’s name? A more concrete but equally controversial step forward has been taken to change the school culture. SFUSD has now voted to implement the lottery system that is used by the other public schools in the city at Lowell. Students were previously required to take an admissions exam and fill out an application, something many had argued was discriminatory towards underprivileged students. This selectivity was responsible for Lowell’s reputation as an elite institution and is often credited for its top spot on many state and national rankings.

When the SFUSD school Board decided that something needed to change, they were right. San Francisco is a racially and socioeconomically diverse city. But for decades the city’s public schools have failed to represent that diversity. Parents, students, teachers, liberals, and conservatives alike have seen the problem with this. Many of them cannot see how this name-change strategy will do anything other than take valuable funds away from schools while students suffer at home.

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