Mountain View Whisman school board members voted 4-0 on June 14 to name the new school on North Whisman Road after Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and documentary filmmaker who grew up in Mountain View and attended Crittenden Middle School in the 1990s.
The decision came after a months-long process with several names in the running, spanning from former Mountain View school board member Gail Urban Moore to former President Barack Obama. Mountain View Whisman trustee Tamara Wilson suggested adding Jose Antonio Vargas to the list, which quickly became the favorite. The newly named Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary began construction earlier this year and is set to open in fall 2019.
In a social media post about the naming on June 15, Vargas said he "never imagined or wished or dreamt of this."
"Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary is dedicated to all undocumented students and their parents and families," he said. "We are here. We are an intrinsic part of every community."
After graduating from Mountain View High School, Vargas launched a prominent career as a journalist and received a Pulitzer prize as a member of the Washington Post team that covered the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. He outed himself as an undocumented immigrant in 2011, describing how his family transported him to California in 1993 to live with his grandparents in Mountain View. He has since launched a nonprofit, Define American, aimed at immigrant rights and using storytelling as a means to "reshape" the way the U.S. views immigration.
Sharing his story growing up as an undocumented immigrant in an article for the New York Times, Vargas described Mountain View High School as a "second home" where he had an active role as a student trustee on the school board and worked as co-editor for the student newspaper, The Oracle. He confided the truth about his immigration status to his choir instructor, Jill Denny, during his junior year of high school when he revealed he couldn't get a passport for a planned performance in Japan, and she was quick to accommodate his situation and move the trip to Hawaii.
Denny told the Voice that Vargas was a great student who has since taken a selfless approach to his fame, using it as as an opportunity to advocate on behalf of others when he had the chance to bask in the limelight. She said naming a school after Vargas is an opportunity to show that Mountain View is a welcoming community that values all students regardless of background.
"He represents a lot of our students in the district -- hardworking, dedicated, kind people who add diversity to our population, which is important and treasured," Denny said in an email. "It doesn't matter where you come from, it only matters that you are here in our community and we welcome you."
Vargas heaped praise on his mentors while growing up in Mountain View, but it was clear he was resourceful, inquisitive and on the path to success with just a little bit of guidance, said Pat Hyland, former Mountain View High School principal and board member for Define American.
"His gregarious, outgoing personality is attractive to folks. If he asks you a question you can't help but answer," she said. "As a life navigator he's exceptional, I wish I was as informed as he was at 16 as I am at 60."
Although the board was quick to make the decision, Hyland said naming a school after Vargas is bound to stir up some controversy and could lead to more pressure on Vargas himself -- anytime his name comes up it's bound to draw scrutiny. But she hailed the decision as courageous and innovative, similar to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf sounding the alarm when federal immigration officials were preparing to do a sweep in the Bay Area.
The only holdout on the school board was trustee Greg Coladonato, who abstained from the vote at the June 14 meeting. During a previous discussion last month, Coladonato brought up concerns that naming a school after someone who is alive may put the school's community in an awkward situation if Vargas does anything objectionable.
The runner-up names for the new school will be used to name other facilities throughout the district. The preschool sites operated by the district will be named after former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama, while the new boardroom on San Pierre Way will be named the Gail Urban Moore Leadership Center.