Burnett Middle School to be renamed Ohlone Middle School

After a process that brought together students, teachers and the local community, Burnett Middle School will have a new name: Ohlone Middle School.

The school’s outgoing namesake is California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, whose racist policies included the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and attempts to keep black Americans out of California. He also believed that Native Americans should be eliminated from the newly-created state, making the change to Ohlone an especially strong statement.

The Ohlone people were the original inhabitants of what is now San Jose. Ohlone College in Fremont is also named after them. According to the ballot, “By choosing this name, we will be teaching students about the Ohlone people while honoring their historical importance in the Santa Clara Valley.”

Charlene Nijmeh, chair of the local Muwekma Ohlone tribe, spoke to San José Spotlight after the choice was made by the board.

“This is an honor for our time because we are still here on our homelands. I remember my mother, the previous chair, was told in the 80s that our people were extinct,” she said. “No, we’re not. We are still here, thriving and engaging in our own communities. It’s an honor to have our tribal name on a public school in our community.”

The process began last February with a Facebook post from Cap Wilhelm-Safian, a Burnett teacher. “It would seem that the legacy of Peter Burnett sharply conflicts with the values we now hold. Times change. Communities evolve,” Wilhelm-Safian wrote when calling on students, teachers and the community to join in the process of renaming the school.

Rather than being a top-down decision, the process relied on community feedback. After administrators received over five hundred submissions, a committee of students, school staff and community members selected twelve options to go to a wider vote.

Students voted in their social studies classes while teachers and the local community submitted their own votes during the week of May 6. Each name was ranked by how many votes it received from the three groups, with seven points going to the name that got the most points from a group to one point for the least number of votes. Adding the points each name received from the three groups led to a final score.

Of those twelve, the top three were chosen to be presented to the board. Ohlone Middle School received 20 points by coming in second in the student vote and first in the staff and community votes.

San José Middle School was next, with 18 points. It was first in the student vote, second in the staff vote and third in the community vote. Finally, Sofia Mendoza Middle School weighed in at 15.5 points, landing third in the student and staff votes but second in the community vote.

Contact Elizabeth Barcelos at ebarcelossj@gmail.com or follow @ebarcelossj on Twitter.

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