Dropping Peter Burnett’s name should be a no-brainer
By SAL PIZARRO | firstname.lastname@example.org | Bay Area News Group
THE MERCURY NEWS — An effort is underway to change the name of Peter Burnett Middle School near downtown San Jose, and it would be a very smart move to do so — and probably overdue.
The more you learn about Burnett — he made it onto the California Supreme Court later in life and backed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1880 — the more you wonder how his name made it onto a school to begin with. It’s troubling to think that in 1931 when Burnett Junior High opened, his openly racist beliefs may not have been that far from the mainstream.
Cap Wilhelm-Safian, a teacher at the school for the past seven years, explained the thinking behind the effort in a post shared on San Jose Unified School District’s Facebook page. “I’m part of a wonderful community dedicated to the values of diversity, inclusion and uplifting every student,” he wrote. “It would seem that the legacy of Peter Burnett sharply conflicts with the values we now hold.”
Burnett Middle School, which sits on the corner of Second and Hedding streets just north of downtown, far outclasses its namesake. It’s one of just a few schools in the Bay Area that follows a prestigious International Baccalaureate program, which aims to build more inquisitive, well-rounded students. Its teachers and students, many of whom come from low-income families, participate in food and backpack drives every year.
San Jose Unified would not be alone in its rejection of Burnett’s name. A preschool in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood dumped Burnett’s name in 2011to become the Leola M. Harvard Early Education School, in honor of that city’s first African-American principal. And an elementary school in Long Beach also made the switch in 2015.
Suggestions for potential names are being accepted online through March 11. Entries are expected to reflect the school’s mission and can include people no longer living or its programs or location. A link to the submission form is on San Jose Unified School District’s page for Burnett Middle School, www.sjusd.org/burnett.