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Possible name changes coming for James Monroe Elementary, Luther Burbank Elementary in Santa Rosa

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) — Two schools in Santa Rosa are being considered going through a name change. James Monroe Elementary, named after the nations 5th president, and Luther Burbank Elementary, named for the famous botanist.
“It is our responsibility as leaders to own and responsible for our histories,” said Alegria De La Cruz, a trustee for the Santa Rosa City Schools. “The names placed on those institutions may not have reflected an honest understanding of the history of those people.”

De La Cruz and another trustee, Omar Medina, are two voices in what is becoming a chorus for change and reform. “Naming a school after someone is a great honor,” said Medina.

He does not believe that honor to be suitable for a president who owned slaves, especially on a campus where the student body is more than 90 percent Latino. “What we honored in the past is a reflection of the power system that existed.”

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Instead, Medina wants to name the school after someone to whom students can relate, Sonoma County Civil rights leader George Ortiz.

District president Laurie Fong agrees. “The issue at this point is how do we empower voice? Community voice. This is not an issue of rewriting history. It’s a question of whose history has been left out?,” she said.

It’s the latest evolving chapter marked by statues coming down, and new perspectives in how we view history.

One might have thought that Luther Burbank would be untouchable. Santa Rosa even has a garden to celebrate him.

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And yet, even Rachel Spaeth, who works there, saw this coming. “I think people are having a healthy discussion about his ideas,” she said. “He never owned slaves. But he does have some of those problematical white guy things from people in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.”

Where Burbank becomes controversial is his study of eugenics. He theorized that as we can improve plant species by interbreeding, we could do the same with people. Burbank even wrote an essay entitled, “The Training of the Human Plant.”

“…And that is reflected in Nazi-ism,” opined De La Cruz. “It’s in many movements and attempts of white people to remove the humanity of people of color. I am not interested in celebrating the eugenics movement. Not interested in celebrating people who owned other people because of the color of their skin.”

As much as the proposed name changes, De La Cruz looks forward to the dialogue this will generate in the school district.

Expect the discussion and likely debates to begin this fall.

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