District wants to swap racist historic names for more inclusive designations

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Madison High School, in the middle of construction, could have a new name when it reopens to students. Portland Public Schools is pushing ahead with renaming some of its buildings that honor "problematic" historical figures, including former presidents.

"It's a really big topic and a really important one," Guadalupe Guerrero told the school board at a meeting Tuesday July 14. He said of the building names "in some cases, they seem to venerate problematic figures from history."

The names under consideration for change include: Wilson, Jefferson, Benson, Alliance and Madison high schools Jackson, Lane and Kellogg middle schools and the district headquarters Blanchard Education Service Center.

The district plans to start the renaming effort in September. Wilson High School will probably be up first and could have a new name by the end of the school year, Dani Ledezma, PPS senior adviser for racial equity and social justice told the school board.

Several students, a graduate and a teacher from Madison High School testified at the virtual board meeting, urging the district to rename their high school. The building is under construction and some said the reopening of Madison would be a good opportunity to rename the school.

Board member Scott Bailey said "it would be pretty sweet opening (Madison) with a new name."

Elicia Blackford, a Madison student, also said the district should go beyond just renaming schools in efforts to fight racism. "Changing racist names is easy, it's low hanging fruit," she said.

A district memo agreed and said equity should go beyond changing building names, noting that the district "must align to improving our teaching and learning efforts to give every student access (to) a more robust learning experience that is culturally responsive, inclusive of a broader band of American culture, and critically stimulating."

The movement to rename Portland schools comes amid nationwide protests and street demonstrations against systemic racism. Some protestors have been pulling down statues of some of the same historical figures that Portland schools are named after.

Colleges and public schools have been changing the names of buildings that honor figures who owned slaves, supported slavery or engaged in other racist activity. The University of Oregon recently decided to rename Matthew Deady Hall, the school's oldest building, due to the racist views Deady held.

Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves. President Woodrow Wilson held many racist views and re-segregated the federal civil service after it had been integrated for decades, according to Princeton University, which recently removed Wilson's name from some of its schools.

Other organizations are changing names perceived to be racist. After years of pressure, the NFL Washington Redskins is in the middle of renaming its team.

Portland district administrators and school board members said they want to capture the urgency and passion of students and the community to change school names, but also want to do it in a thoughtful way that puts student leaders and alumni in the forefront of the process.

Students and the community have gathered thousands of signatures to change the names of some of the schools. Board member Julia Brim-Edwards observed that name changes for Portland schools is not a new issue and said the board "should signal our support for a comprehensive review" of building names.

Superintendent Guerrero said he was sure the district and its students will find "more appropriate, respectful and affirming names."

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