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What’s in a name? It depends on the LA Unified school

Mike Szymanski | August 26, 2015

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joynerThere’s an LA Unified school named after someone who led protests against the district (Sal Castro). There’s a school named after a baseball great (Jackie Robinson), a boxer (Oscar de la Hoya ), an explorer (Richard E. Byrd), a victim of terrorism (Daniel Pearl), a jazz legend (Duke Ellington), a children’s book author (Leo Politi).

Just yesterday, the former Alliance College Ready Middle School #9 was renamed for Kory Hunter, a tireless volunteer and fundraiser for educational programs who died of brain cancer in 2013.

For dozens of well-known people, there’s an LA Unified school named in their honor, even in one case, where the honoree has a controversial past, David Wark Griffith Middle School: There’s a movement to change the name because of the director’s insensitive film “Birth of a Nation,” which canonized the Ku Klux Klan.

So what’s in a (school) name? LA School Report decided to take a closer look at the district’s 1,274 schools.

There are plenty of schools named for what some might regard as politically incorrect or for undeserving reasons, such as schools named for religious leaders (Hillery T. Broadous), military leaders (Gaspar de Portolá i Rovira), gays (Walt Whitman), lesbians (Jane Addams), bisexuals (Frida Kahlo), Democrats (Pat Brown), Republicans (Henry Tifft Gage), even a Whig (Horace Mann).

But, most are pretty benign atttributions, with names of famous local and historic figures.

Here are some overall observations:

  • About 58 percent of the schools are named after the streets they’re located on or the school’s neighborhood.
  • About 5 percent of schools have numbers or street-named numbers in their title.
  • 16 U.S. presidents have schools named after them, including the current occupant of the White House, Barack Obama.
  • There’s a school name for every letter in the alphabet except for Z. (Yes, there’s Xinaxcalmecac Academia Semillas Del Pueblo.)
  • Many schools are named after poets, civil rights leaders and inventors. Some are named after former school board members and local community activists.

A school generally gets a specific name after the community requests it and brings it to the school board member of that district. Then, it’s discussed and voted on by the full board.

For example, the school at 1963 E. 103rd St. existed a quarter of a century before Florence Griffith Joyner was born in 1959. After she became “the fastest woman in the world” and won Olympic medals she got a school named after her. Now, nitpickers could complain that her legacy has been tainted by allegations of drug use, but so far no one has asked that her name be removed from the school.

There are a number of husbands and wives who have schools named after them. Andres & Maria Cardenas Elementary in Van Nuys was named for a couple who raised 11 children in Pacoima — he was a laborer and then established his own successful business. Other couples have separate schools.

Twenty-six miles separate Michelle Obama Elementary School in Panorama City and Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy on 46th Street in Los Angeles. It’s only nine miles between Thomas Bradley Global Awareness Magnet, named for the former Los Angeles mayor, and the Ethel Bradley Early Education Center, a school named for his wife.

It’s only four miles between Diego Rivera Learning Complex Communication & Technology School and Frida Kahlo Continuation High, schools named for two of Mexico’s most renowned artists, who were married. Sal Castro was a pain for LA Unified, leading a mass walkout and protests against the board a few times in the 1960s, but he got Sal Castro Middle School named after him. His walkouts ultimately changed the district.Jefferson High LAUSD

Presidents with schools named after them are: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, James Buchanan, James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, John F. Kennedy, William Jefferson Clinton and Barack Obama.

Clinton’s vice president is honored with the Rachel Carson-Al Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences, but there was some controversy when it opened because of toxic soil where it was being built. Many pointed out the irony of naming it after two people famous for being environmental activists.

There’s a school named for lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who defended O.J. Simpson on murder charges and Michael Jackson on child molestation charges. (Simpson and Jackson have no schools named after them.) And, there’s the Sonia Sotomayor Learning Academy, named for the U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and the Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School, which honors the late poet, who died last year.

J_Cochran_Jr_Middle_SchoolMany schools are named for authors, raising serious questions: Are there wild things at Maurice Sendak school? Is there treasure at Robert Louis Stevenson school? Do they paint the fence white at Mark Twain? Are the students falling alseep at Washington Irving Middle School, which is named for the author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Some schools are named for lesser-known people. Juanita Tate, for example, advocated for green space in south LA. Hubert Howe Bancroft was an abolitionist, whose family home was part of the Underground Railroad. Phillis Wheatley was the first black published poet. David Starr Jordan studied fish, William Antón became the district’s first Latino superintendent, and Jaime Escalante, had a movie, “Stand and Deliver,” made about his teaching style.

Other schools are named for union activists and union busters. Helen Bernstein was a teachers union president, and Bert Corona was a labor leader, but Andrew Carnegie was known for breaking labor strikes.

Aviatrix Amelia Earhart, who disappeared after her final flight, has a school named after her as well as airplane pioneer Orville Wright. And, there’s a school named for a lesser-known aviation pioneer, Glenn Hammond Curtiss, who was sued by the Wright Brothers for patent violation.

There are schools named for people who may be mistaken for their true accomplishments. Don’t let the middle schoolers say that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, because he didn’t, and Thomas A. Edison did not invent the light bulb. Nor did Albert Einstein fail math, despite the legend. And, certainly the middle schoolers at Christopher Columbus can tell you that he did not, in fact, discover America.

It turns out that board member Monica Garcia is familiar with questions over the D.W. Griffith school — it’s in her district — and after some community discussion it may soon go to the full school board for a name change.

Anyone can find fault with some of the names of the schools at LAUSD, but the real question is: Do the 4th graders at South Park Elementary School really know how cool they are?

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