Name Change Coming to Wilson High School; Wilson Construction Funding Dropped from November Ballot

[Posted July 20, 2020]


Principal supports changing name, initiates name change process


Now that anti-racism movements have gained wide traction and new momentum around the U.S., the proposal is being taken seriously for the first time. Wilson Principal Filip Hristic, who supports changing the name, formally requested the initiation of a process to do so in a letter late last month addressed to Portland Public Schools Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero.


Students and members of the staff at Woodrow Wilson High School have called for a new name for our local high school for years.


In a message to the Wilson parent email list on June 29, 2020, Hristic said, "As the proud principal of Wilson High School, I also believe that we must change the name of our school and that we must begin this important process now. Given Woodrow Wilson’s racist legacy, it is clear that his beliefs and actions stand in conflict with our school’s and our district’s commitment to racial equity and social justice."


Applications are being taken for a committee of students, staff, and members of the community that will be charged with conducting a public community engagement process resulting in a name change proposal. Applications to serve on the committee were due by July 15 for students; applications for parents, community, and staff are due July 22.

Opportunities to participate in the process will be available for the general public.


Not Just a Local Issue


Public institutions around the country named for our 28th president have already abandoned the name or are in the process of doing so. The most high-profile organization to opt for a name change is Princeton University, which in June removed Wilson’s name from its prestigious School of Public and International Affairs. In a letter, the president of the university declared “Woodrow Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school or college whose scholars, students, and alumni must stand firmly against racism in all its forms.”


Hristic said he has been surprised by the number of responses to his email, the overwhelming majority of them in support of a new name. An online petition calling for a name change has gathered more than 5,000 signatures. Students and staff have lobbied the superintendent and school board with letters and in-person testimony.


The Process


Name changes for PPS property are governed by PPS board policy, which reserves naming decisions for the school board. The guidelines are broad. Schools may be named for local neighborhoods or geographic areas, plants or animals, or people or groups of people “who have demonstrated international, national, state or local leadership in the fields of education, arts and sciences, or public service” and who have been dead for at least three years.


The board policy does not outline the process for creating a name change proposal, but authorizes the superintendent to develop that procedure. In the case of Wilson High School, Hristic is working with the school’s Site Council (made up of staff, students, and community members) and PPS administrators to craft the process. Hristic will be a member of the committee, which will be facilitated by a PPS administrator.


Hristic expects the committee to be formed by the end of the summer so that a larger community engagement process can begin as soon as school starts, with the goal of presenting a proposal to the school board for approval in December or January. He hopes to have a new name approved in early 2021. The committee’s next step will be to develop a rebranding package, depending on the new name. A new mascot, replacing the Trojan, could be considered at this time as well.


Dropping Names


Suggestions for a new name for have already begun to surface in letters of support and on social media, ranging from Hillsdale or West Hills High School, to other figures named Wilson, to non-Wilson namesakes:


Stephanie Wilson, engineer and NASA astronaut, the second Black woman to go into space.


Margaret Carter, Democratic member of the Oregon Legislative Assembly from 1985 to 1999 and 2001 to 2009 and the first Black woman elected to the state's legislature.


W. E. B. Du Bois, a contemporary critic of Woodrow Wilson.


Beatrice Morrow Cannady, early twentieth-century Oregon civil rights leader.


Harriet Wilson, the first African American published novelist.


Margaret Bush Wilson, civil rights activist and attorney.


The guiding principles of the name change process, according to Hristic, are to ensure that there is strong student representation and a transparent and inclusive process. Hristic says that the process should “center voices of students and families of color to undo policies of white supremacy so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.” Further, he hopes that the committee’s work will not be just about choosing a new name, but also about seizing the opportunity to address some of the injustices we have inherited and to emerge a stronger community.


Wilson High School Dropped from School Construction Bond


Wilson High School is no longer on the list of schools to be rebuilt with money from this November’s PPS bond measure.


Economic impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as well as cost overruns from previous school construction bond projects have led PPS to drop two of the last three high schools yet to be modernized.


Rebuilds for Jefferson, Cleveland, and Wilson High Schools had been slated for what was expected to be the final bond measure, but now only Jefferson will be included in the next bond. Modernization of Cleveland and Wilson will have to wait for what will now be the final bond measure in 2024.


The School Board is expected to approve the final bond package at its July 28 meeting.


While Wilson’s enrollment has been growing steadily over the past few years, that could change if there are further significant delays to the modernization schedule. Wilson has experienced periods of declining enrollment with more families choosing private options or transfers to other schools in the PPS system. PPS transfer policies have tightened considerably in recent years, but there are several private or religious-affiliated schools, such as Riverdale High School, Jesuit High School, and Oregon Episcopal School, in or near the Wilson attendance boundary. Families with school-aged children may find other neighborhoods with modernized schools more attractive.


If Wilson is left too long as one of the very few high schools left to be rebuilt, the impacts on SW Portland could be considerable.


--Valeurie Friedman


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