Saturday, October 16

Renaming of local school prompts reckoning with problematic past

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An Ugly Past

Near the end of Benny Cittadino’s fifth-grade year, in June 2020, his class was given an extra assignment to research the namesake of their school, Frank L. Huff. Through Cittadino’s online research, he found an excerpt from a book that revealed Huff’s “America for Americans” and anti-immigrant stance.

Cittadino’s research started a community conversation that resulted in the renaming of Frank L. Huff Elementary School to Amy Imai Elementary. Amy Imai (1930-2013) was a Japanese-American Mountain View resident with deep ties to the community and a voice for social justice activism.

“I felt amazing, accomplished, and satisfied with myself,” Cittadino said. “I was actually able to do something, and they actually were able to change all of this on a large scale.” 

Mountain View Whisman School District Director of Equity Megan Henderson said that the school worked with the Mountain View Historical Association to authenticate the documents by Cittadino.

 Candace Bowers, a librarian at the Mountain View Public Library with the Adult and Digital Services, said that the association primarily relied on one secondary source: “History of Santa Clara County, California,” by Eugene T. Sawyer. 

I was actually able to do something, and they actually were able to change all of this on a large scale.

It states: “Mr. Huff… sincerely believes in America for Americans, and is strongly opposed to the immigration into our country of people who are out of harmony with American institutions and ideals, particularly those of such blood as cannot be assimilated by the Caucasian race to its benefit.”

At the elementary school, 37 countries are represented in the student body, according to the National Blue Ribbon Schools website.

 “If so many students would not be accepted by [Huff], that person should not represent the school,” Cittadino said. 

After discovering the information, Cittadino informed his teacher, Jennifer Schaefer, and various other teachers emailed the principal, Arline Siam. Once the research was brought to the attention of Superintendent Ayindé Rudolph, the renaming process began. 

“I always want to make things right, and this was something very wrong,” Cittadino said. “Just knowing that this would have made the lives of people a lot better made me want to fix it.”

The Citizen Action Committee for renaming had its first meeting in November 2020, led by Henderson. It included students, teachers, and parents.

“Most people were in favor of renaming the school, especially given the [racist ideologies]that came to light and the priorities and values of the district,” Henderson said. 

Henderson identified community engagement and collaboration as key parts of her role.

“Being as transparent as possible and coming up with a plan that includes as many people in the process as possible…is so important,” Henderson said. “Transparency is key.”

Rudolph estimated the cost of the physical changes as $10,000 to $20,000, not including labor. If the school decides to change colors and repaint, he said the cost could be as much as $100,000.

Regarding the cost, Rebecca Westover, the chief financial officer of the MVWSD,  forwarded questions to Shelley Hausman, the district’s public information officer. 

In an email, Hausman stated that the school ordered a new panel for the sign that cost around $2,100. The previous estimate of $5,000 was referenced in an MVWSD meeting on June 17.

A Growing Trend

The renaming of Huff Elementary may be seen as part of the recent trend in communities around the country that have reevaluated the background of celebrated historical figures. Public sentiment has led to the dismantling of Confederate statues at the Virginia Military Institute—and to the renaming of schools originally named after slaveholders, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, in Berkeley, California. 

In 2018, the San Francisco school board created a committee to evaluate the namesakes of their schools. 44 were stated to be renamed after a vote in January 2021, over a third of the schools in the district. However, the committee and board were heavily criticized for their poor, and at times inaccurate, research.

They were also criticized for focusing on renaming instead of transitioning students back to school during the pandemic. In response to the backlash, the board voted to end the renaming process in April. 

“To me, [renaming]44 schools seems really overwhelming. Just because having a process that felt right for our community was one that took an entire year, and we were renaming one school, not over 40,” Henderson said.

It could have cost several millions of dollars, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, while the San Francisco school board president estimated a cost of $10,000 per school. 

The Palo Alto school district renamed Terman and Jordan middle schools in 2018. The namesakes were leading advocates of the eugenics movement in the early 1900s. The schools were renamed Ellen Fletcher Middle School and Greene Middle School, respectively. The district used bond funds to cover a cost of about $60,000 in total, according to a Palo Alto Unified School District board document from April 18, 2017. 

The growing trend was seen in the renaming of a San Diego school. A petition was started by two sisters to change Junipero Serra High School’s mascot, the Conquistador. Concerns about the mascot and name stemmed from Spanish conquistadors’ violence against Native Americans and forced conversion to Christianity. 

In March 2021, San Diego Unified School District unanimously voted to change the school’s name to Canyon Hills High School, translated from the name of a local tribe. They also changed their mascot to the Rattlers. The school colors changed from gold and brown to red and black. Lawsuits against the renaming called the effort anti-Catholic and a product of cancel culture.

The movement to rename schools has also affected MVHS. Alumni of Chester F. Awalt High School, the prior name of Mountain View High School, started a Change.org petition to revert the school’s name back to Chester F. Awalt High School. It was renamed to Mountain View High School in 1981 after the two high schools in Mountain View combined. 

Naming the school after an Asian American will help show people that everyone should be treated equally,

The previous Mountain View High School was located on Castro Street, Chester F. Awalt High School was located on Truman Avenue, and Los Altos High School has not changed its address.

 Once the previous Mountain View High School closed, its students were split between Awalt and Los Altos. In order to preserve parts of the school, its mascot, an eagle, and colors, blue and gray, were adopted by Los Altos High School, while the name was adopted by Awalt High School. 

The petition organizers said that they wanted to honor Awalt, who served on the school board for a total of 34 years. They said they didn’t see why the school name was changed in the first place. 

“We will be presenting our request, along with the petition, at an upcoming MVLA High School District Board Meeting, for their consideration,” the petition organizers said.

356 people have signed the petition as of September 14.

According to the petition, “although a full renaming of the campus may not be likely, perhaps we can have one of the campus facilities…. named in honor.”

Process at Huff

Through monthly meetings, the CAC looked for individuals that represented their community. They created rubrics to evaluate candidates that came forward for consideration, including NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Amy Imai. 

Imai was a Mountain View resident prior to being forcibly relocated to a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Later, she was a teacher at the Mountain View Buddhist Temple. She shared her experience by visiting local schools, including those in the MVLA School District.  Imai also worked on history projects about her experience of being interned, including a 15-minute documentary entitled “All We Could Carry” about growing up in an internment camp.

Susan Imai, Amy Imai’s daughter and special education teacher at MVHS, said her mother would have been humble about the ceremony. 

Susan Imai said her mother wanted to talk about her experience in the Heart Mountain Internment Camp in Wyoming in order to remind people that we are all citizens.

“Naming the school after an Asian American will help show people that everyone should be treated equally,” said Ava Seto, a freshman and alumna of Imai Elementary School. “It will [encourage]people to research other Asian American role models.”

The district criteria for the rubric included considerations of candidates that represented inclusivity, greater societal change, and academic excellence. 

The school also wanted candidates to promote community pride, reflect the school’s diversity, and inspire students. 

The candidates were graded on each consideration up to a score of 5 (strongly aligned). Imai received the most points, 27.303 out of 30, according to MVWSD board meeting documents. 

After reviewing the results, Rudolph recommended Amy Imai as the new namesake. 

“School names reflect the values of a community,” Rudolph said. “The namesakes of every school need to reflect that level of inclusivity.”

Doubts 

MVHS parent Suzanne Schultz said that she heard about the renaming as a Huff Elementary School PTA member. Her two children graduated from Huff Elementary School in 2018 and 2020.

Schultz said that her doubts stemmed from the lack of information about Amy Imai and added that she wouldn’t want something to occur that would lead to an additional renaming.

“[Amy Imai] is not necessarily famous, so there’s not a lot about her,” Schultz said. “She very well could be amazing, but who knows? That’s where you get into that danger.”

Although Schultz “wasn’t entirely shocked” when the information about Huff was released, she said she didn’t think the renaming was necessary.

 “It was a different generation of people with different views. That doesn’t make it right,” Schultz later said, “but it was of the time.”

Regarding the current generation, Schultz attributed a culture of activism to the renaming process. 

“The article they found was very old. I assume that other people have found it in the past…but just didn’t feel empowered to take that action,” Schultz said.

People sometimes can’t deal with change, and that’s why they opposed the renaming

The renaming didn’t just affect the school. Other school-related organizations also had to be renamed. For example, the Huff PTA went through a renaming process. It involved approaching the attorney general and changing the organization’s federal tax ID because it is a non-profit. The steps were completed by PTA members. 

“These people are all volunteers,” Schultz said. “Everyone has a limited bandwidth, so ideally the time spent on renaming should be spent on spending time with their kids or work.” 

Besides the time commitment, Schultz said she didn’t agree with renaming the school after a person. Others proposed the name of Orchard Elementary to inform community members about Mountain View’s history.

“There are lots of options aside from a person’s name. This is a way to avoid repeating the error of their ways,” Schultz said. 

Although there was discussion about renaming Frank L. Huff Elementary after a relevant place or color, Henderson said people expressed a greater attachment to a person.

“A few of my friends’ parents and other community members asked ‘why should we really be doing this renaming? It’s been like this for so long,’” Cittadino said. “People sometimes can’t deal with change, and that’s why they opposed the renaming.”

Local Response

On Aug. 19, 2021, blue streamers spelling out Imai adorned the fences at the elementary school, and the new school name was also displayed in roses. 

The grand opening ceremony—with guests including the Imai family, community members, and teachers—consisted of a community-created video, statements from the family and those involved in the process, and the unveiling of the new sign. 

“Everybody felt really proud, considering all that took place last year between the Black Lives Matter movement and the call-to-action against Asian American Pacific Islander hate,” Rudolph said after the ceremony.

Mountain View mayor Ellen Kamei said the renaming of the school highlights the history of the Japanese internment.

 “I think [this renaming shows]that Mountain View is recognizing these actions… we are a community for all… and we want to highlight the stories that may be forgotten,” Kamei said.

Other local schools have also been renamed to reflect the diversity of the community.

I think [this renaming shows]that Mountain View is recognizing these actions… we are a community for all… and we want to highlight the stories that may be forgotten,

“We now have two of our elementary schools named after AAPI leaders,” said Kamei. “Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winner, [and]now Amy Imai, who was working on civil rights and a community leader… it gives students people to look up to in real life.”

Kamei said the renaming brings past practices of minority discrimination to light.

“The school was renamed because [Huff]… was really not a welcoming individual who didn’t celebrate or appreciate diversity. And so we’re able to acknowledge that,” Kamei said. “It also highlights the importance of talking about our past, so that we can have a better, brighter future.”

Susan Imai and Kamei both said that Amy was involved in the Mountain View Buddhist Temple and strongly supported local Asian-American politicians like Margaret Abe-Koga, Mountain View council member and former mayor. Kamei said Amy used her experience to fight for social justice to prevent “history from repeating itself.”

“She took her personal experiences here in Mountain View to make sure that she created positive change. That’s what the naming of her elementary school shows,” Kamei said.

Susan Imai said she liked that the renaming came from one student’s research.

“The impact now [of the renaming]is, hopefully, that other generations will see that they can make a big impact. It just takes one step,” Susan Imai said.

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Julia is a senior in her second year in Oracle. She serves as In-depth Editor. Outside of school, she enjoys reading, running and playing with her 3-year-old giant schnauzer.

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