San Jose Unified prepares to rename Burnett Middle School

Burnett Middle School is one step closer to getting a new name following backlash over the racist actions of the school’s namesake.

The school is named after California’s first governor, Peter Burnett. His policies included the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. He also attempted to keep black Americans out of California and also believed that Native Americans should be eliminated from the newly-created state.

Those ideals do not reflect the school’s current character, critics said.

During a presentation at the San Jose Unified School District board meeting Thursday, Principal Christina Castro shared that a committee of students, staff and community members has narrowed the list of nominations to three using ranked-choice voting. The school will unveil the three finalists on Tuesday.

The voting period is tentatively scheduled for May 6 to 10.

In a post on San Jose Unified’s Facebook page in February, Burnett teacher Cap Wilhelm-Safian reflected on the troubling actions of Burnett and how it impacts the student body and community.

“Many people in our community feel the time has come for a conversation,” he wrote. “Who are we? What values do we wish to uphold?”

After opening nominations for a new name last March, Castro reported to the board that there were 585 submissions, though there was some overlap in names. Students, staff and the community will remain involved in the process, she said, with each group receiving a third of the votes.

Students will vote in their social studies classes as part of lesson plans teachers have created about the name change.

“They’ve provided reading information to the students so that they really understand that when you name a school, what does that mean?” said Castro. “What are we honoring through that process, and how should we be thinking about it in terms of what is important to us as a community?”

The fight over affordable teacher housing

Also on Thursday, parents raised “Save Almaden Schools” signs over their heads to urge trustees to abandon a controversial plan to relocate two schools and build affordable teacher housing there

Parents called on the trustees to keep Leland High and Bret Harte Middle schools in their current locations.

Last month, the board approved a contract with The Schoennauer Company to narrow down a site to build affordable teacher housing.

In September, officials picked nine potential sites as locations to build below market-rate housing to help with teacher retention. Leland and Bret Harte were two of nine sites. The other sites under consideration are: Bachordt Elementary, Burnett Middle, Olinder Elementary, Gardner Elementary, the San Jose Unified District Offices, River Glen School and Second Start-Pine Hill.

However, bringing higher density, below-market housing to affluent Almaden Valley, which is made up primarily of single-family homes, kicked off an immediate backlash that made national news.

The Change.org petition against using these school sites for housing garnered more than 6,700 signatures by Friday afternoon.

Almaden residents on Thursday touched on a variety of issues, from traffic congestion caused by relocating the schools to disrupting some of the district’s top performing schools.

Each speaker drew rounds of applause from supporters in attendance.

“You need to involve us in this process,” said Almaden Valley resident George Clark. “I suggest that you get people in the community involved in the process, nominate certain people to get involved.”

But Patrick Bernhardt, president of the San Jose Teachers Association, shared a different perspective.

“There aren’t going to be solutions to the situation we see with the school facility imbalance in the Almaden Valley that will make everyone happy,”  he said. “But there is a necessity to study all the options.”

Since the housing item was not on Thursday’s agenda, the board could not address the concerns raised by the parents and community members. Instead, the trustees directed people to the district’s Employee Housing Initiative page, which lays out what the district has done so far and their projected next steps.

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

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