School names convey our values

Matt Haney
Matt Haney

A public school’s namesake conveys to our community, and especially to our children, whom and what we value. A child will recite her school’s name countless times, whenever she or he is asked, “Where do you go to school?”

At Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in San Francisco’s Castro, the school’s legendary namesake tells each student that equal rights for all is a value to be celebrated.

In honoring the plaintiff in the landmark equal protection case Yick Wo vs. Hopkins, Yick Wo Elementary in San Francisco’s Chinatown memorializes the hard-fought struggle against anti-Chinese racism.

Our nation’s founders often are chosen as school namesakes. These important leaders were agents of transformational change in their time. Still, some communities wish to honor a local or contemporary individual today, renaming a school for them.

For some, the desire for a new school name runs deeper. There are parents, students and alumni, some of whom are African American, at Francis Scott Key Elementary and at George Washington High in San Francisco who object to having a slaveholder as their schools’ namesakes.

School names are not disconnected from the broader movement to make public schools inclusive and reflective of the diverse histories and experiences of their students.

It is essential that we provide a path by which more California schools can be named for women, people of color, LGBT people and people with California roots. In doing so, we can demonstrate to public school students, the majority of whom are students of color, that the concept of an American hero is not bound by race, gender or sexual orientation.

Recent public discussions of whether to permit school name changes have been difficult, reflecting heartfelt beliefs and differing perspectives on both sides.

But our nation’s founders did not shy away from hard conversations required to craft new from old, at times challenging tradition or orthodoxy, and neither should we.

There should be no question that an inclusive process empowering school communities to consider new names honors both our diversity and our democratic ideals.

Matt Haney, an attorney, is San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education president.