School names can be lessons in recognition

South Region Elementary School #11, L.A. Unified's newest campus, recently opened. The principal said it would be re-named after a suitable moniker is decided upon.
(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Carlos Santana. Johnnie Cochran. Al Gore. The parents of City Councilman Tony Cardenas. It’s a diverse group with at least one thing in common: Los Angeles public schools bear their names.

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s decade-long school building program is winding down after about 100 campuses have been named. As district officials replace such temporary generic names as South L.A. Area New High School No. 3 with permanent monikers, the process has become political, controversial or just plain wacky.

School names now run the gamut in the nation’s second-largest district, which has more than 900 K-12 campuses. There’s a Maurice Sendak Elementary, named after the author and illustrator of “Where the Wild Things Are.” John A. Sutter Middle School is named after the Swiss gold-rush pioneer, and Quincy Jones Elementary for the music legend.


Some schools are named in a more traditional vein — for historical figures such as Robert F. Kennedy or local leaders such as former Supt. Roy Romer. But L.A. Unified officials have also taken the opportunity to pay tribute to district insiders, political allies and celebrities. Sometimes the decisions can cause dissension, as in the case of an arts high school named for former Supt. Ramon Cortines.

“It is both a blessing and curse to have all these opportunities to name schools,” said school board member Bennett Kayser. “It’s a blessing we are opening all these new schools, but it can be a curse because a naming can be divisive within and between communities.”

For much of the district’s 159-year history, there were simple guidelines for naming schools. Elementary campuses typically were named after the street where they were located or the surrounding neighborhood or city (First Street Elementary). Middle schools were named after prominent Californians (John Muir Middle School) and high schools after more well-known national figures or the neighborhood (Hollywood High).

More recent guidelines say board members should create a naming committee with representatives from the school, including teachers and parents. A ballot of suggested names should be voted on by the panel. The winning name should then be presented to the Board of Education for approval.

But the board has the authority to suspend those guidelines, and those with knowledge of the process say members can bypass those committees or guide the effort toward the name of their choice.

Last year, board member Nury Martinez dedicated an elementary school to Andres and Maria Cardenas — parents and “local heroes,” as she called them, who lived in her San Fernando Valley district. “These were good, hardworking, honest people who raised 11 children to be educated, good citizens of their community,” she said in a press release at the time.

The youngest of those children is Tony Cardenas, a Los Angeles city councilman recently elected to Congress — and Martinez’s political ally. Martinez, who’s not seeking reelection to the school board this spring, has been eyeing Cardenas’ soon-to-be vacant seat — and she’d benefit from his support. Martinez did not respond to requests for comment.

Other schools have names that are unfamiliar to the general public . Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences is named for the late Ronald Prescott, a former deputy superintendent of governmental relations and public affairs.

Perhaps indicative of the city’s Democratic leanings, the last Republican president to have a school named for him — William Howard Taft — served when Ronald Reagan was an infant. Reagan and Richard Nixon, the two U.S. presidents most closely associated with California, do not have L.A. schools named after them. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama do.

In the 1990s, an effort to rename Mount Vernon Middle School in Mid-City after Old West lawman Wyatt Earp was shot down. The school was built on the site of the gunslinger’s last residence.

Years later, shortly after the death of Johnnie Cochran Jr., district leaders moved to change Mount Vernon’s name to honor the prominent attorney, who’d been a student there.

Cochran built his reputation through police abuse and civil rights cases; he gained international fame for helping win acquittal of O.J. Simpson on murder charges.

Relatives of Nicole Brown Simpson, the former football star’s ex-wife, chafed at the idea. Her sister said at the time that naming a school for Cochran would be in “bad taste.” But the campus and the street in front of it — now Johnnie Cochran Vista — did get renamed.

Former board member Yolie Flores succeeded in having five schools named after successful Latinas. Her staff had found that most campuses were named after men, and that women — especially Latinas — were underrepresented, she said. She asked parents, teachers and others for suggestions.

The schools include Sonia M. Sotomayor Learning Academies, for the U.S. Supreme Court justice; the Hilda L. Solis Learning Academy, for the U.S. secretary of Labor; and the Sandra Cisneros Learning Academy, for the author.

“I want students to be inspired by people who look just like them and had the same struggles growing up as they do,” Flores said.

Historically, officials largely have steered clear of naming a school for someone still living because it leaves open the possibility that the person might do something to mar his or her reputation, embarrassing the district. The recent debate over the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, named for the former superintendent, is an example.

A group of parents who had initially complained that they were left out of the naming process asked the school board to change the name of the downtown campus after it was revealed that L.A. Unified paid a settlement to an employee who had accused Cortines of sexual harassment.

Their efforts were to no avail. Board President Monica Garcia argued that Cortines had been a champion of the arts and had played a large role in opening the school. Instead, Garcia suggested offering students an unofficial diploma with both the school’s current name and its former temporary name: Los Angeles Central High School No. 9.

The naming of a $75.5-million high school devoted to environmental sciences proved tricky. One suggestion — naming the Mid-City school after folk singer and environmentalist Pete Seeger — was scuttled by board member Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte. She said Seeger’s past “affiliation with the Communist Party” made the choice inappropriate.

The campus was eventually named for two notable leaders in the field: the late author Rachel Carson, whose classic 1962 book “Silent Spring” is credited with sparking the modern environmental movement, and former Vice President Al Gore, who raised awareness about global warming with his film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Unfortunately, the Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Sciences sat on a toxic site that required a $4-million cleanup before students could safely begin their studies.

The irony wasn’t lost on the school board, but the name remained.