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Survey: Students, adults divided on John Muir school rename

Second- and third-graders study plant life in the John Muir School courtyard. file photo

The survey results are in and of those who participated, current and former students of the John Muir Outdoor School support renaming the institution, while other groups are divided on the matter.

The information, requested by the Ashland School Board, was shared for the first time at an Oct. 25 work session. The community input survey went live on Oct. 5 and closed on Oct. 21.

“As always, we want to hear from as many people as possible so we can hear multiple perspectives,” said Andrea Townsend, director of equity and inclusion for the Ashland School District, in an interview on Wednesday. “We’re grateful for those responses … and the school board [members] that took the time to meet with the outdoor school staff. They are an amazing group of people and always want what is best for students.”

Eva Skuratowicz, chairwoman of the school board, applauded the study and the staff of JMOS.

“I think it’s really helpful to have that input from the John Muir staff,” she said. “This is something that should be celebrated — something where they’re definitely leading the way for us as a school district.”

JMOS, located at 320 Beach St., serves K-8 graders and emphasizes a curriculum based on “natural science, traditional arts, and music,” according to its website. While enrolled, students of the school “build relationships with the natural world through planting, hiking, sketching and spending time outdoors.”

While it opened in 2006 under a different name, the school was always named after Muir, considered the “Father of the National Parks” and co-founder of the Sierra Club who died in 1914.

But in recent years, Muir’s father-figure legacy has been called into question as possibly racist by academics and even the organization he founded. They point to his writings, in which he described Native Americans living in Yosemite as “filthy.” They also accuse Muir of participating in a genocide of Indigenous tribes in the Sierra Nevada, where he is from, in the 1800s.

Survey results

In all, 105 people were surveyed. 72 of them supported the name change and 33 did not.

While 100% of current and former students supported a name change, only 78% of former or current staff members and 56% of former or current parents did, too.

Meanwhile, 44% of former or current JMOS parents did not support the name change and 22% of former or current staff members shared the same view.

For those with no direct ties to the JMOS, 73% favored a name change, while 27% did not.

“It’s important for us to also hear from the rest of the community,” said Townsend, speaking to why people not associated with JMOS were surveyed. “We know that some families might not have students at John Muir Outdoor School currently, but it may be something they’re considering for the future.

Discussion: JMOS name change

The survey comes after several months of work by the Ashland School Board-appointed committee tasked with researching and discussing the people for whom the district’s buildings and grounds are named. That discussion includes considering “any negative impact that official building names may have on members of the school community based on the namesake’s morally repugnant views or actions,” according to the mission statement printed in the committee’s report.

JMOS was the only facility the committee recommended the school approve renaming at this time.

“The other thing we heard from the JMOS staff is this is a name change for the entire community,” Skuratowicz said. “Simultaneously, there is a real sense of belonging — it’s a smaller school, people feel very committed to the school, and the name is very significant to them.”

With those feelings in mind, the board chair asked if more JMOS staff members would be added to a committee to decide on the new name if the board approves a renaming.

Board member Victor Chang said at the meeting that the school board does many things, but this decision over whether to rename a school, “aligns with our strategic plans and equity and inclusion goals.”

“It was nice to hear, in seeing the survey results, that they are really, for the most part, pretty in favor of this,” Chang said. “It would be hard for me to support moving forward if the JMOS community was not on board. What would we do? Force it on them?”

The board will vote on whether to rename JMOS next month.

Curriculum

Jennifer Parks, principal of JMOS, recently asked some of her teachers how they incorporate Muir into the curriculum.

One class reads a book about him for inspiration of short writing prompts focused on being outdoors, she wrote in an email to the newspaper.

Another class examines more closely his work as a naturalist and how he “advocated politically for the US government to prioritize forest conservation policy, the preservation and respect for wild places,” Parker wrote.

Another class reads books about his adventures or excerpts from Muir’s own writings, including “My First Summer in the Sierra.”

“These all emphasize an appreciation for ‘wild’ places, a sense of wonder, and conservation ethic,” Parks wrote.

When it comes to the conversation over whether to rename the school, Parker hopes both students and the community get involved.

“We are looking forward to taking this opportunity to have our students researching, learning, and participating in the process along the way,” she wrote in an email. “With students from kindergarten through eighth grade, this obviously looks different at the various levels.”