LeConte community members address the School Board ahead of a unanimous vote to rename the school “Sylvia Mendez.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Cheers broke out Wednesday night among those who stayed at the Berkeley School Board meeting to watch LeConte get renamed Sylvia Mendez Elementary School.

The unanimous vote capped off a years-long effort to rid the school of a slaveholder’s name and pick a new moniker that reflected modern values and the bilingual program at 2241 Russell Street.

Mendez, selected from more than 100 community suggestions, is the name of the family who waged the court battle that ended legal segregation in California schools in 1947. Sylvia was 9 years old when she was banned from attending a white school in Orange County because of her Mexican heritage. Now in her 80s, she’s become a vocal desegregation advocate and visited Berkeley schools to talk to kids about her experience last year.

“She’s a living legend,” said board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, who invited Mendez to Berkeley with the César Chávez and Dolores Huerta Commemoration committee. “She continues to go throughout the nation speaking about this case because it hasn’t gone away. We still have schools in the United States that are segregated,” Leyva-Cutler said.

Parents and staff began questioning LeConte’s name as early as 2011, in conjunction with the decision to make the site a Spanish-English immersion school. Joseph LeConte was a celebrated UC Berkeley geologist and conservationist who helped found the Sierra Club, but also owned slaves in Georgia and continued promoting white-supremacist ideas in writings and lectures long after he moved to Berkeley.

The effort to rename the school ramped up this school year, in a complex process involving many community committees, surveys and meetings, and assemblies and lessons at the school on the final suggested names.

Natasha Beery, BUSD community engagement director, who facilitated the process and conducted extensive research on the old and new names, estimated volunteers put in 650 hours collectively.

Speaking during the public comment period, Leah Martens, LeConte PTA president and member of the naming committee, said she’d initially worried that the process would create factions, pitting advocates for different names against each other.

“We saw something very special take place” instead, she said. “Rather than being divisive, the process of learning about all these inspiring ideas was unifying.” Kids and parents had rich discussions about all the suggestions and the history behind them.

Board member Judy Appel said she was pleased to find that final lists did not just include the usual suspects, but rather lesser-known figures who fought for justice. It’s important for students to learn that effecting change “involves all of us, and lots of different people,” Appel said.

“I do feel very strongly we need to have our schools in Berkeley be named after the kind of change we want to see in the world,” she said.

One commenter at the meeting was the lone voice that night for another one of the names on the shortlist, denise brown. The deeply beloved teacher and administrator, who didn’t capitalize her name, worked at both LeConte and Berkeley High and died in 2007.

“I’m very, very respectful of the process the current school community went through,” said Claudia Wilken, parent of LeConte and BHS alumni. “I just feel for this school, at this time, we have an almost fateful opportunity to name a school in Berkeley after a woman who came from the community and gave back to the community.”

The committee suggested naming the transitional-kindergarten yard “Arco Iris,” the Spanish word for “rainbow,” and the most popular suggestion among the youngsters there. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The naming committee has suggested various buildings at Sylvia Mendez Elementary take up some of the names that didn’t make the final cut. The transitional-kindergarten yard could be named “Arco Iris,” the Spanish word for rainbow, for example, since it was the young students’ favorite option, and there could be a mural painted to match it.

Mendez was the most popular name in many of the surveys and discussions, committee members said, and as the name of a Latina girl who made a difference in public education in California, it fit many of the criteria they’d come up with.

Leyva-Cutler said she’d spoken with Mendez about the proposal. The activist said she wanted to highlight that Mendez v. Westminster laid the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, in large part because Earl Warren, then California governor and later Supreme Court justice, and Thurgood Marshall, attorney for both Mendez and Brown and later a Supreme Court justice himself, were both involved in each case.

Years after both landmark cases, Berkeley Unified became the first district to voluntarily integrate its schools, busing students to sites outside of their segregated neighborhoods.

Board member Ty Alper said it’s important to remember how long it took to arrive at that decision, and how much resistance it faced from the Berkeley community at the time.

“Berkeley residents can be proud of our city’s historic decision to integrate our schools, but we should not presume it was easy to accomplish,” he said. Now, Alper said, Berkeley has an innovative school assignment system, premised on ideas raised in the Mendez case — that “social equality,” not simply identical institutions, is the cornerstone of integration. The complicated effort to integrate schools continues to this day, he said.

“Despite the great progress we’ve made, [Mendez’s] mission and that of her heroic family is as urgent today in Berkeley as it was 70 years ago,” Alper said.

Other schools and universities around the country are engaged in parallel efforts to reexamine the legacies of their namesakes. The last time Berkeley attempted to change a school’s name — from Jefferson to Sequoia, in 2005 — the process was bitter and contentious, and ultimately failed to get sufficient support from the School Board.

This time around, the district policy was changed ahead of time, to separate the de-naming vote from the renaming vote, ensuring that the shedding of an undesirable name would not hinge on support for a proposed name. The board voted out “LeConte” in November.

Wednesday night, Leyva-Cutler made the motion to rename the school. It was seconded by Appel and approved unanimously. Karen Hemphill was absent.

Staff estimated it will cost $25,000 to make Sylvia Mendez signs and switch out LeConte stationery and literature.

Additionally, “there’s a huge desire for this to culminate in a celebration in the fall,” Beery said.

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,...