Editor's note: This story has been updated.
Seeking to honor a former Crittenden Middle School student who went on to become a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, Mountain View Whisman School District board members agreed to name a new school after Jose Antonio Vargas.
Vargas' name quickly became a favorite among district residents, staff and eventually the school board as the top choice for naming a new school being built on North Whisman Road, effectively replacing the old Slater Elementary School. Because of quirks in the state's naming system for schools, naming the new school Slater was out of the question.
Vargas, a Mountain View High School graduate and a former high school intern at the Voice, launched a prominent career as a journalist and went on to win a Pulitzer as a member of the Washington Post team that covered the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. In 2011, he outed himself as an undocumented immigrant, describing how his family sent him to live with his grandparents in California in 1993, and discovering his documents were fake at age 16. In recent years he has become an outspoken advocate for immigrant rights.
Board president Laura Blakely said naming the school for Vargas is a great way to acknowledge a local student who received support from school staff and community members and used it as a springboard to launch a successful career. She said it also recognizes his role in fighting to help undocumented immigrants in the U.S. -- particularly those who came to the country at an early age and were granted temporary legal status under Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
"He took that education that he got here in Mountain View and became a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and then a real fighter for freedom, particularly for 'Dreamers,'" Blakely said earlier this month.
Board members formally voted on the names for the North Whisman school, the new preschool and the boardroom on Thursday, June 14, making Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School official. The vote was 4-0, with Greg Coladonato abstaining.
When contacted by the Voice after the board's initial decision on May 31, Vargas said he would wait to comment until the board made its final decision June 14.
Board member Tamara Wilson, who lives in the Whisman area and proposed the name, said she wasn't sure what the reaction would be, and that she was excited to see the community rally behind the idea. Board member Ellen Wheeler said she was also pleasantly surprised to see interesting names make it to the end of the school-naming process.
"I was expressing some cynicism (earlier) that we'd be able to actually get names of this level of meaning all the way through the process," Wheeler said at the May 31 meeting. "I thought we'd end up with some really bland names so they wouldn't be objectionable to anybody."
Although naming the school after Vargas won majority support from the board, there were some reservations about the new school getting mixed up with the nearby Vargas Elementary School in Sunnyvale or with Manuel De Vargas Elementary School in Cupertino. Wheeler suggested that the community could make a concerted effort to say the whole name -- Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary -- or an abbreviated J.A. Vargas in order to avoid any confusion.
Another concern, raised by Trustee Coladonato, is the idea of naming a school after someone who is both alive and relatively young, which he said could put the school community in an awkward situation if Vargas ever does something objectionable. He pointed to Palo Alto Unified School District, which is mired in a lengthy process to rename Jordan and Terman middle schools. The district's school board voted to rename the schools because Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan advocated for eugenics during the early 20th century.
It's already risky enough to name a school after a dead person, Coladonato argued, but naming a school after someone who is still alive means the school's namesake has a higher potential to be tarnished.
"When the person is still alive and still has maybe 50 years more living to do, I just feel like it puts the school in an awkward position to feel like anything done by this living person reflects on them," he said. "I don't feel very comfortable with that."
Wheeler said she didn't think there are any significant differences between naming a school after a living or a dead person, and that the example Coladonato used shows neither option is exempt from criticism. Blakely said she wasn't too worried Vargas was going to do anything terrible, and it shouldn't get in the way of the board's decision.
"Sure he could mess up, we all could, but I have great confidence in him," Blakely said. "I'm not so concerned that I wouldn't want to name a school after him."
Besides Vargas, the runner-up names included the former President Barack and former first lady Michelle Obama, as well as former Mountain View school board member Gail Urban Moore. Rather than throw out the names, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said the district could name its preschool after the Obamas and suggested that the new boardroom could be named the Gail Urban Moore Leadership Center.