Students welcome classmates to LeConte Elementary School, slated to get a new name this spring. Photo: Courtesy Liza Lutzker

The shortlist of new names for LeConte Elementary School includes seven proposals, ranging from civil-rights icons to the Spanish word for “rainbow.”

The School Board voted to drop the name of the South Berkeley school last year after community members and BUSD staff learned troubling information about its namesake, the slave-owning geologist Joseph LeConte.

A committee of school staff, parents and neighbors has worked since then to draw up a list of potential new names and seek input at community meetings. The current options were whittled down from more than 100 distinct submissions, said BUSD staff, presenting to the School Board at its meeting Wednesday night.

The proposed names include Ruth Acty, BUSD’s first African-American teacher, hired in 1943. According to the district, she taught more than 7,000 kids over 50 years, in English, French and drama classes across many grade levels.

“She was an epitome of excellence. Brilliant, highly qualified — overqualified,” said Natasha Beery, BUSD community engagement director, at the meeting.

Also proposed is denise brown, an adored former LeConte teacher and Berkeley High administrator, who died in 2007. A large group of her supporters has advocated for the school to be named after brown (who didn’t capitalize her name) and received over 300 signatures on a petition they circulated, according to Beery.

Dolores Huerta, the prominent California labor and immigrant-rights activist, is on the list of names as well. Berkeley Unified holds an annual student writing and poster contest commemorating Huerta and César Chávez. LeConte is the district’s Spanish-English bilingual campus, and many have suggested the school be renamed in honor of a Latino figure.

The list also features the names of two women, Mamie Tape and Sylvia Mendez, who were at the center of school desegregation cases in California when they were children. In 1885, Tape’s parents sued the San Francisco school board for segregating children of Chinese descent from their white classmates. They later moved to the more integrated Berkeley, where Tape attended the brand new LeConte Elementary.

Decades later, in 1947, Mendez’s parents waged a fight for the rights of kids of Mexican descent in Southern California schools, in a case that ended legal segregation in the state, years before Brown v. Board of Education. Mendez, now in her 80s, visited Berkeley schools last year.

Also on the shortlist of proposed names is Ohlone, the indigenous population, made up of many different tribes, in Berkeley and elsewhere along the Northern California coast. The LeConte renaming committee stipulated that local tribal leaders would need to provide consultation and permission before Ohlone was selected as the school’s new name, which could be difficult to receive in time to have a new name this spring.

Finally, the seventh possible name is Arco Iris, which means “rainbow” in Spanish, and was suggested by a LeConte student. The proposal received positive reception when it was introduced at a recent community meeting, district staff said.

The committee used a number of criteria to consider the merits of the submissions, Beery said, including whether the name was unique enough, if it was “inspiring,” if it could endure and reflect the population or under-represented segments, if the name was connected to education or the Bay Area and if it reflected the “two-way immersion” bilingual structure of LeConte.

The rest of the name suggestions, presented briefly Wednesday night, included some creative entries, like Stargazer, Pete Seeger and Michelle Obama — along with Shortfellow, presumably a predecessor of Longfellow, and Schooly McSchoolface.

“We’re pretty sure those two were in jest,” Beery said.

The Berkeley School Board received a presentation on the seven new names under consideration for LeConte on March 28. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The staff and committees facilitating the renaming have put biographies for each of the seven final proposals and information on the naming process online. They have also distributed classroom resources and home study guides on each of the figures at LeConte.

On Wednesday, School Board members discussed the renaming process, praising the work done so far, but were advised not to provide feedback on the seven names at this point. There will be further opportunities for community input before staff presents at least one final recommendation for a board vote in May.

Then staff will get to work implementing the new name, “which as you can imagine is going to take a great deal of work and involve many departments, from facilities to payroll to student information systems,” Beery said. The district will present cost estimates at the May meeting as well.

Community members raised concerns about LeConte beginning in 2015 or earlier, and the board began working then to revise the district’s naming policy. The new policy separated the decisions to “de-name” and rename a school, now two distinct votes.

As members of the board and school researched Joseph LeConte, sometimes spelled Le Conte, they came across writings of his they believed disqualified him from a position of honor in Berkeley schools. Before he became UC Berkeley’s first geology professor and the celebrated co-founder of the Sierra Club, LeConte owned a large slave plantation in Georgia with his brother John.

He continued espousing white supremacy after moving to California, long after the Civil War. In his 1892 lecture, “The Race Problem in the South,” LeConte said slavery had been the “natural relationship” between whites and blacks, the “weaker” race. “The higher race must take control,” he said, the same year LeConte Elementary opened.

UC Berkeley students have led parallel, though so far unsuccessful, efforts to rename campus buildings named for the LeConte brothers as well.

The School Board voted unanimously to scrap the name of the elementary school in November 2017, and is set to vote on the new name May 23.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...