On July 27, a brave young boy named Malachi Suarez, a fourth grader at Fresno, California’s Polk Elementary school, stepped up to the podium at a meeting of his district school board, and gave everyone a history lesson about James K. Polk, the 11thU.S. president.
“I believe in freedom, justice, quality and community. These are some of the main principles of America and our school district. I believe that community is when we try to do what is best or better for everyone or most people. I am asking that you rename Polk Elementary because Polk was against these principles.
“Polk believed that one group of people was superior to every other and more deserving. That is called Manifest Destiny. It is the idea that non-European Americans are inferior and do not belong here. Many people like me were killed because of this. Eighty-five percent of our student population would be considered inferior.
“Polk owned slaves and was against ending slavery at the White House. This goes against the American ideal that all people are created equal. Some might say that slavery was acceptable at the time, and we should not judge people based on the principles of someone today. But would you say that to a slave?”
“We can accomplish great things when we see people like ourselves being honored, celebrated. That is why Central Unified should name more schools after people of color.
“I recommend that you rename my school after Maria Moreno. She was the first woman farm laborer to be hired as a union organizer. She was a role model who fought for fair working conditions for diverse groups of people.”
“We should not stop at changing the name and mascot at my school. We should also change the Native American mascot at Madison Elementary because being a mascot does not honor Native Americans. Instead, it reinforces the old ideas about Native Americans being savages. We did not even learn about Native American history and the great accomplishments and current contributions to society.”
“At my school, you are choosing to continue honoring Polk and the pioneers and contradicting the principles of America and our school district. Why would you choose that?
“I call on you to do what is right. I call on you to do it now because there’s no reason to wait any longer for the positive change that I’m asking you to make.
“I’ve gathered over a thousand signatures and am supportive of the name change because many people understand that changing the name is the right thing to do. If you do not change the name, you are saying that you celebrate slavery, Native American genocide, killing, stealing land and racist ideas of people like me being inferior and unwelcome. That is why you should vote ‘yes.’”
When Malachi ended his remarks, he raised his fist, and said loud and clear: “Representation Matters!”
The Central Unified board declined to vote on changing the school’s name, but it did appoint a committee to study and develop a policy on name changes.
Suarez’s research on Polk resulted from an assignment from his Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program teacher, and he decided that coming up with a petition would be a good way to close out his project. According to The Know Youth Media, “Upon deciding this petition was going to be his way of completing his assignment for class, Suarez said that he felt ‘silenced’ by his teacher who “tried to make [him] be quiet during an open discussion when [he] was trying to share the link to [his] petition.” Suarez was frustrated by this, especially after his teacher told the principal to call his mother, Crystal Cabrera.”
Suarez’s petition (https://www.change.org/p/central-unified-school-board-change-james-k-polk-elementary-́s-name?redirect=false) garnered nearly 500 signatures. “The majority of Central Unified students are children of color. It is important that schools be named after people of color who made significant contributions to this community so that we can see ourselves in a positive light,” Suarez said in a statement explaining his petition. (As of this writing the petition has over 1,600 signatures.)
Suarez’s father Gabriel Suarez told The Fresno Bee’s Melissa Montalvo (https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/education-lab/article254277818.html) that, “The purpose of his project was to educate his peers and people in the community to get support to change the name of his school.”
Gariel Suarez added: “He was asked to make 10 posters for his project,” which were supposed to be placed on different campuses. “The district only allowed him to put one poster up at his school.”
Montalvo noted that “the poster, which read ‘James K. Polk was racist,’ was then torn down by a parent, who later described her actions on Facebook, according to a screenshot of the post reviewed by The Bee.”
Polk Elementary was founded in 2004, and according to to school documents, Montalvo reported, “the school wants to emphasize the ‘courage and bravery of the early pioneers who settled the West.’”
The school district has formed a committee -- comprised of 21 community members and three board members — a mix of parents, students, school staff, and locals from the seven representative trustee areas -- to study and collect community feedback on the topic of school names and mascots. The point of the committee is to “do some analysis to justify any recommendation to change the name of Polk Elementary or any other school,” said Yesenia Carrillo, the Central Unified school board president.
“I hope that we can take away that we create a positive environment for students to feel comfortable to continue to express their ideas and their thoughts and opinions even if there is opposition,” said Carrillo. “And that adults are respectful of that and we really facilitate that as well.”
“I hope the Suarez family as well as the rest of our community —whether they support it (the name change) or they don’t — will provide the committee an opportunity to evaluate and consider,” said Carrillo. “And that they participate.”
The Fresno Bee’s Montalvo reported that, “The Fresno area school wouldn’t be the first named after Polk to undergo a name change. In 2019, an elementary school in Baton Rouge, La., changed its name from Polk Elementary to the Eva Legard Center, in honor of the first Black woman to serve of the school board.”
The Community Alliance’s Vic Bedoian recently reported (https://fresnoalliance.com/fourth-grade-student-with-a-history-lesson-confronts-school-district/) that, “Those [on the school board] who opposed the name change mainly said they did so because of the financial cost to the school district. No one really defended the reputation of President James K. Polk as a reason to keep his name on the school.”
That’s not an entirely satisfying result for Malachi. After experiencing the efforts to impede and delay his project, he feels let down, “I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded in educating that many people. I’ve educated some people; there’s a lot of people who signed my petition. But there’s [other] people that I don’t feel like I’ve educated. They’re very ignorant as to what’s going on, and they don’t want to change.”