By Kathy Chouteau
Betty Reid Soskin, the iconic 99-year-old park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, now has another distinction to add to her many accolades: middle school namesake. Following a unanimous vote by the West Contra Costa Unified School District’s (WCCUSD) Board of Education Wednesday night, Richmond’s Juan Crespi Middle School was officially renamed after Betty Reid Soskin, according to the WCCUSD.
The vote came on the heels of an eight-month process by the school community that encompassed a series of community meetings, surveys and a student project which saw students researching their school’s previous namesake, Juan Crespi, said the district.
“I am a firm believer in giving people their flowers while they are still here to smell them,” said Betty Reid Soskin Principal Guthrie Fleischman about the school renaming. “There are so few schools named after women and fewer named after women of color and even fewer named after black women.”
Drawing inspiration from the social justice movements sparked during the COVID-19 pandemic, Principal Fleischman and his team began exploring possibilities for the school’s student’s staff and community. Eventually, the school’s history department researched Juan Crespi, the California Missions and the impact on indigenous people. The effort culminated in students sharing the results of their investigations via “What is in a Name” research projects, according to the WCCUSD.
Underscoring that “the district must be agents of change,” WCCUSD Trustee Jamela Smith-Folds said that renaming Crespi Middle School after Soskin “is creating conditions for positive change” as we move away “from the harmful history of Juan Crespi and toward the inspiring life of Ms. Soskin.”
At the board’s May 19 meeting, Smith-Folds and Trustee Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy were appointed to the Juan Crespi Renaming Committee, which held two public meetings to discuss the name change. Two options were presented: Chochenyo Middle School, in honor of the land the district inhabits, and Betty Reid Soskin—the option which ultimately prevailed, according to the WCCUSD.
“Betty Reid Soskin is a national icon, leader and symbol of inspiration in the WCCUSD community,” said Gonzalez-Hoy, offering his thanks to the school community for being “part of the process of this renaming” and to “the families, communities and especially the students who advocated for this change.”