It’s Back to School in Clairemont

Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955 with East Clairemont in the distance.

A history lesson on our local school names

How many are old enough to remember that Clairemont High School was originally supposed to be James Madison High School? Angry residents demanded the school be named for the neighborhood. Clairemont’s second high school was named after our fourth president when it opened in 1962.

Have you ever wondered how our neighborhood elementary schools got their names? Do they receive a passing or failing grade? There is currently a movement to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary in Paradise Hills. Should the names of Clairemont schools be changed to keep up with the times?

Since a primary goal of elementary education is learning to read, it is fitting that many Clairemont schools were named after wordsmiths: author Louisa May Alcott, Little Women; author Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales; musical composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters”; children’s poet Eugene Field, “Wynken, Blynken and Nod”; author Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter; poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Song of Hiawatha”; children’s poet James Whitcomb Riley, “Little Orphan Annie”; author Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island; poet Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”; poet John Greenleaf Whittier, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” (Andersen and Stevenson Elementary Schools have been closed.)

The great American humorist Mark Twain described a “classic” as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” Most people have heard of Little WomenThe Scarlet Letter and some might remember “the land of sky blue waters” from an old beer jingle. They associate “Orphan Annie” with a Broadway musical, but what about the rest? Are these respected writers from the past relevant today?

Perhaps the most appropriately named school in Clairemont is Sequoia Elementary, but it flunks geography and spelling. Many of the streets in West Clairemont are named after Native-American tribes, but Sequoia Elementary is located east and north of the “Mount” streets. Furthermore, Sequoia is misspelled.

The great Indian chief Sequoyah created the Cherokee syllabary/alphabet in the early 19th century. His people achieved a significantly higher literacy rate than their white neighbors. He was an exceptional thinker and educator.

Contrary to legend that the giant trees and national park are named after Sequoyah, the word sequoia was more likely an attempt by Austrian biologist Stephan Endicher to make “sequence” sound Latin. The distinction was not widely known when the school opened in 1960.

William P. Toler Elementary is named after San Diego’s first teacher. Ironically, he was fired in 1851 for introducing bilingual education to his students.

Bay Park certainly makes sense for a school that serves the Bay Park community, but alumnus Walter Anderson points out the school is actually situated in what was historically the Morena District.

Mount Everest Academy is located among the “Mount” streets, but it originally was Kate Douglas Wiggin Elementary. This impressive woman was an educator and author (Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) who started the first free San Francisco kindergarten in 1878 and dedicated her life to the welfare of children. In my opinion, the name of the school never should have been changed.

Other Clairemont elementary schools are named in honor of supreme court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette and aviator Charles A. Lindbergh.

Sunshine Elementary opened in 1935 on 35th Street to bring sunshine to handicapped students. In 1959, the campus moved to a new facility in East Clairemont. The name was changed in 1971 to commemorate humanitarian and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer. Since the schools were next-door neighbors, Lindbergh-Schweitzer consolidated in 1990-1991.

In 2004, the San Diego Unified School District created a list of suggested names for future schools which include, among others: John Ames, Henry Batchelder, Thad Black, Samuel T. Black, Ellen Breen, Florence Brewer, T. Malcolm Brown, Katherine Cox, Margaret Erdt, Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., Robert Gregg, Donald Hanson, Walter Hepner, Grace Hopper, Clyde Hufbauer, Paul Eugene Klein, Fred Lindley, May Scott Marcy, Clarence McGrew, James McMullen, Julia Morgan, Kenneth R. Rearwin, Norma Sullivan, John Swett, Charles O. Taylor, Maria Theodore, Forrest Warren, Richard B. Woolley and Beverly Yip.

This question is not meant to disparage anyone, but who are these people?

If the school board decides to change the name of Robert E. Lee Elementary, I hope they will heed the San Diego Black Police Officers Association and rename the school in honor of fallen SDPD officer Archie Buggs who was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop in 1978.


Pictured: Bill Swank outside the Buena Vista Garden Apartments on Cowley Way in 1955, with East Clairemont off in the distance