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Renaming Vote Stirs School

Matthew Artz
Tuesday February 03, 2004

Thomas Jefferson’s legacy in Berkeley may rest on the vote of school children born after William Jefferson Clinton took office. 

But not if Jefferson Elementary School Principal Betty Delaney can stop it. 

According to Jefferson PTA President Linda Safarik-Tong, Delaney told the PTA that concerns from parents and teachers have led her to seek permission from the Berkeley Unified School District to waive a requirement that students as young as five vote on the controversial drive to strike the name of the author of the Declaration of Independence from the school. 

“It’s an emotional minefield for students,” said Jefferson first grade teacher Marguerite Talley-Hughes, who along with parents and fellow teachers initiated the effort last spring to rename the school so it wouldn’t bear the mark of a slaveholder.  

District policy requires that proposed name changes first win approval form 20 percent of parents, staff and students at the school. 

Last spring advocates for a new name collected signatures from 40 percent of staff and 32 percent of parents—but on the principal’s order, students have remained on the sideline. 

“My responsibility is to keep [students] safe and out of the process until we formalize what will happen,” said Delaney, who refused comment on any intention to request a waiver barring a vote either for all students or for Kindergarten, first-, second- and third graders. 

Delaney, who has remained neutral throughout the debate, has faced criticism from parents that the process has been under the radar, and her request for a waiver is clouded in confusion. One parent said he heard “third-hand” that the district had denied the request, while Superintendent Michele Lawrence said Delaney hasn’t broached the subject with her. 

With enough votes from staff and parents to proceed with a name change, the weight of the process falls on students, with parents on both sides of the debate, but most agreeing that the issue is better suited to fourth- and fifth-graders. 

“It could be really good for social studies,” said Rachel Chernoff, the mother of a kindergarten student she acknowledged didn’t know who Jefferson was. 

Mark Piccillo, a parent who opposes the name change and is slated to sit on a newly formed committee to guide the name change process, said he disagreed with some parents he said were pushing for a student vote in hopes of “deep sixing” the proposal. 

“When it comes to serious stuff like this, where there are strong feelings and no clear answers, it should be up to the parents,” he said. 

Should Jefferson go, he would be the latest in a steady stream of dead white males given the heave-ho from Berkeley schools. Shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., James Garfield Middle School was renamed in his honor. Abraham Lincoln Elementary became Malcolm X under a groundswell of community support, and just four years ago Christopher Columbus Elementary was rebuilt and renamed after Rosa Parks. 

Rosa Parks Parent Liaison Maria Gonzalez said their school followed the rules to a tee, allowing students to vote first on a name change and then on a new name. Although in Rosa Parks’ case there was little controversy over the call for a name change, there was heated debate on whether the new name should honor Parks or Caesar Chavez. 

Lawrence said she opposed changing district policy to fit one circumstance and disagreed with those who wanted to keep students out of the debate.  

“That’s a dangerous road to go down saying young children can’t be educated on issues that are controversial in nature. I don’t agree with that as a parent or as an educator,” she said. 

However, many teachers and parents interviewed said they feared a vote could traumatize students who aren’t emotionally or intellectually mature enough to deal with slavery. 

“It would be a very hurtful discussion,” said Beverly Thiele, a second grade teacher at Jefferson and a supporter of the name change. She feared that a vote would put her students at risk of accusations of racism or insensitivity. “It’s OK to include them on future names, but not this,” she said. 

If the students must vote, Talley-Hughes insisted the Jefferson debate be presented to them in a forthright manner. “It they are going to be part of the process we must be honest with them. We can’t couch it in terms that cloud the issues at hand.” 

District policy doesn’t specify guidelines for a student vote, leaving it up to the school to decide whether or not to teach special lessons on Jefferson before polling the students. 

Lawrence envisioned several methods to involve children, including having the principal go to each classroom and explain the issue or calling an assembly that presents both sides of the issue, then allows students who support a name change to sign the petition. 

Should 20 percent of students support the name change, the remainder of the process is equally vague. A committee of parents and staff, formed to guide the process, has yet to meet, while the student vote issue remains unresolved. 

Ultimately, a new name must receive support from 50 percent of parents, staff and students—and Jefferson’s name won’t be excluded from the competition, giving hope to some in the Jefferson camp that the ultimately the status quo might survive. 

“A lot of us want the name kept,” Piccillo said. “No one’s going to beat Jefferson.”