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What is in a name? Davis schools reflect rich history

By From page OC14 | September 24, 2013

Davis is proud of its school system, a real important piece of our community. Here, we explain the history of each school’s name.

Robert Willett Elementary: Built between 1967 and 1971, this campus originally was known as West Davis Intermediate School. The name was later changed in the 1990s to honor Robert “Bob” Willett, who taught for 20 years at the school.

Willett was born in Oklahoma in 1928, and served as a paratrooper in late 1940s and early 1950s. He became a teacher and eventually came to California, living in Weed (Siskiyou County) for several years, the moving to Davis in 1969. Willett organized an annual camping trip with students, and encouraged them to participate in science fairs, gymnastics shows and an annual drama production.

Former Davis school board trustee Joan Sallee recalls Willett as “one of those quiet heroes who did so much and touched so many lives. Two of my daughters were lucky enough to have Bob as a teacher and we well remember the enthusiasm, humor and dedication to teaching which he brought to school.”

Daughter Kristie Sallee recalls “Mr. Willett did a musical every year. He always made sure everyone got to be involved. He also let us do P.E. in the empty fields to the north of the school. While I was in his class, I wrote a 32-page report on Japan, and he gave me two A+’s — one for the work and one for penmanship. On Fridays, we had singalongs with Mr. Willett playing the guitar. He also made a little stream going into a pond outside his classroom. All the kids in his class caught a crawdad in the spring. Mr. Willett had a kiddie pool where we kept our crawdads. We each used nail polish to paint an identifying symbol on our own crawdad’s back.”

Willett was also an early member of the Davis School Arts Foundation and a volunteer with the Pence Art Gallery and Babe Ruth Baseball. He built scenery for many Davis Musical Theatre Company productions. He stopped teaching in 1989, but did not get to enjoy a long retirement. A longtime smoker (a habit he urged students not to take up), Willett died in 1991 of cancer, at age 62.

Pioneer Elementary: Pioneer Elementary shares its name with adjacent Pioneer Park. The campus was built between 1966 and 1974. The school periodically holds a festival called “Pioneer Days,” in which students celebrate the past by dressing up in gingham or denim clothes, wearing straw hats or sun bonnets, and playing games or performing chores that would have been familiar to a child in rural California during the late 1800s.

Marguerite Montgomery Elementary: This school, which opened in 2001, is named after Marguerite Montgomery (1892-1989), who was a teacher in the Davis schools for 42 years, working for many of those years at the old Davis Elementary School. (That school eventually was demolished to create what is now Central Park, home to the Davis Farmers Market.) Montgomery earned the nickname “Miss Fifth Grade” because she taught at that level for many years. She retired in 1957.

She is recalled as a tall, stately woman with immaculately groomed white hair and a model teacher with great presence. Joe Carey, a colleague, remembered how much the principal at the old Davis Elementary School relied on Montgomery’s daily guidance, support and advice.

Rowe Romancer, a former student, recalled that Open House was the day that Miss Montgomery looked forward to the most every year. Her classroom was always one of the most impressive rooms at the school. Others remember her as an excellent teacher who was very strict, but much beloved. Students who completed her fifth-grade class felt a sense of accomplishment and pride.

Montgomery was a descendant of one of the early American  families to settle in what is now Davis; the Montgomery family came to California in the 1800s. Some members came west with early American expeditions led by John C. Fremont and scout Kit Carson.  Eventually, some members of the family got involved in gold mining, saved up and purchased seasonally swampy lowlands in what is now South Davis from Gen. Vallejo in 1850, an area that became known as the “Montgomery sinks.”

Fred T. Korematsu Elementary: This school, which opened in 2006, is named after Fred T. Korematsu. Born in Oakland in 1919, Korematsu was working as a shipyard welder at the time of the Japanese military’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. When the American government ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans in western states, Korematsu challenged the federal government’s war order to relocate Japanese-Americans to internment camps.

(Curiously, Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii — a sizable percentage of the population there — were not interned.)

Korematsu’s effort to challenge the internment met little success at first; he was arrested and lost a 1944 Supreme Court decision. But he was vindicated decades later by a court decision overturning of his conviction in 1982. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1998. He died in 2005.

The movement in 2006 to name a new elementary school in the Mace Ranch neighborhood of Davis in honor of Korematsu was spearheaded by several scholars affiliated with law school at UC Davis who had studied Korematsu’s decades-long legal struggle opposing internment. Several members of the Korematsu family attended the school’s dedication.

In 2010, the California Legislature recognized Korematsu’s Jan. 30 birthday as a special day of significance in which schools are urged to honor his memory.

Birch Lane Elementary: This school, which opened in January 1963, bears the name of the street it is on.

On April 14, 2011, Birch Lane Elementary made the national news when teacher/librarian Lynne Sundstrom and her students went on a monthlong campaign to respond to a New York Times article declaring the death of the picture book, culminating in a letter to the editor published being published in the Times, along with a note from the editor and a picture of the scroll on which the letter was written.

According to the letter, the students read 4,590 picture books over the course of “Love a Picture Book Month.” The Davis Enterprise also published a story about the NYT letter.

Valley Oak Campus: This campus opened in 1953 and originally was named East Davis Elementary. The school’s name was later changed to Valley Oak Elementary — the valley oak being a tree native to California’s interior valleys and found in many Davis neighborhoods.

Valley Oak Elementary closed in June 2008 due to falling enrollment. There was considerable neighborhood opposition to the closure. Many Valley Oak students then enrolled in recently opened Korematsu Elementary or Montgomery Elementary.

The Valley Oak campus soon became home to what is now Da Vinci Charter Academy, serving several hundred students in grades 10-12; the Davis Children’s Center; and a preschool program for special education students.

North Davis Elementary: This campus on East 14th Street, built between 1957 and 1965, bears the name of the neighborhood it serves. However, the term “North Davis” has implied somewhat different parts of the city in different decades. In the 1940s and 1950s, “North Davis” was an area bounded by Fifth Street on the south, Seventh Street on the north, B Street on the west, and the railroad tracks (between G and I) on the east. That area is now known as Old North Davis, but is more commonly considered nowadays as part of Central Davis.

Now, North Davis is considered to be neighborhoods north of Covell Boulevard, and the school is south of Covell. But the name North Davis Elementary has stuck. Located close to Davis High School, students from North Davis sometimes walk over to the “big school” to hear performances by the DHS Orchestra or other ensembles.

César Chávez Elementary: This campus on Anderson Road was built in 1954, and was known for many years as West Davis Elementary. The school’s name was changed in 1997, when several strands of the Davis school district’s popular Spanish Immersion program — a magnet program for elementary students, who learn in Spanish — were brought together on a single campus.

The school was named after farm labor leader César Chávez (1927-1993), who, with Dolores Huerta, founded the United Farm Workers union. The union was particularly prominent in the 1960s and 1970s when it organized many marches and several boycotts to raise awareness of farm worker rights. Chávez also went on several long hunger strikes to draw attention to the cause. When the school was renamed in honor of Chávez in 1997, one of those in attendance was Richard Chávez, brother of the late union leader.

Cesar Chavez’s birthday, March 31, is celebrated in California, Colorado and Texas as a state holiday, intended to promote service to the community in honor of Chávez’s life and work. Although it is not a federal holiday, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 31 as “César Chávez Day” in the United States, with Americans being urged to “observe this day with appropriate service, community and educational programs to honor César Chávez’s enduring legacy.”

Patwin Elementary: Built in 1991-92 on Shasta Drive in West Davis, Patwin Elementary is named after a tribal group known as the Patwin, who comprised the southern branch of the Wintun group, native inhabitants of California since approximately 500 AD.

Fairfield Elementary: This rural, two-classroom school is west of the city limits. There has been a Fairfield School in that area since 1866; the current building dates from 1957. At one point, the Davis school district closed the Fairfield campus as a budgetary move, and rural students were assigned to larger elementary schools in town.

Fairfield Elementary was renovated in 2001 and now serves as a magnet program for rural children as well as Davis residents who want a two-room country school experience. Fairfield parents are expected to volunteer for various tasks to keep the school in operation, and there is often a waiting list to enroll.

Junior high schools in Davis is serve grades 7-9 — an uncommon configuration — and the Davis district continues to use the term “junior high.” Most districts have “middle schools,” often in a configuration serving grades 6-8.

All three junior high schools in the district are named for Americans who were active in social causes during the 19th century; for instance, all three were involved with the movement to abolish slavery.

Emerson Junior High was built in 1979, and is named after Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the noted essayist, lecturer and poet. Emerson’s 1837 speech “The American Scholar” was cited by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. as “America’s intellectual Declaration of Independence.”

Emerson led what came to be known as the Transcendentalist Movement, which focused on self-reliance and independence. Emerson mentored Henry David Thoreau (among many others), and influenced writers as diverse as John Muir and Emily Dickenson. (An earlier incarnation of Emerson Junior High is now known as the Susan B. Anthony Office Building, hosting the district office.)

Holmes Junior High was built between 1966 and 1963, and is named in honor of Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-1894). Holmes was a physician, poet, professor, lecturer and author. His poem “Old Ironsides” was a tribute to the famous 18th century American frigate of that name, and the poem did much to preserve the aging ship, which is now the oldest commissioned ship in the world still afloat.

Holmes was a friend of Emerson and also knew many others among Boston’s literary scene. He also taught at the Dartmouth Medical School and advocated for various medical causes. (Holmes also had a famous son — Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. — who lived from 1841 to 1935, and served for decades on the U.S. Supreme Court.)

Harper Junior High was built in 2004, and is named in honor of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), who was an African-American abolitionist, poet and author. Born free in Baltimore, she published her first book of verse at age 20, and published the novel “Iola Leroy” at age 67.

She was the first woman to teach at Union Seminary, and in the 1850s, she toured widely as a lecturer, focusing on the evils of slavery. For many years, she was involved with the Unitarian Church. After the Civil War, she was active in the prohibition movement and the fight for women’s suffrage. She died nine years before women got the right to vote nationwide.

High schools

Davis High School bears the name of the town, and the town is named for Jerome C. Davis (1822-1881). Born in Ohio, Davis came to California in 1845 as part of Capt. John C. Fremont’s topographical survey expedition, crossing the Sierra through what is now known as Carson Pass. Davis returned to California a few years later during the Gold Rush, but did not get rich panning for nuggets.

In the early 1850s, Davis gravitated into the Sacramento region and started the first dairy in Yolo County with Col. Joseph B. Chiles. With the help of Davis’ father, Isaac, the farm prospered until the mid-1860s. Davis deeded the ranch to his father in 1866. A year later, Isaac Davis sold part of his ranch to the California Pacific Railroad.

In 1868, the railroad filed a plot for the new town of Davisville. In 1917, the community incorporated. The “ville” was dropped from its name about the same time, and the town became known simply as “Davis.”

Portions of the current Davis High campus were built in 1960 and other buildings were added later (including the Brunelle Performance Hall, built in 2003). The old brick Davis High School building on Russell Boulevard is now Davis City Hall.

King High School is named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), the famous civil rights leader and advocate of nonviolence. King led the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala. (seating on buses was segregated at the time). King’s “I Have a Dream” address at the March on Washington in 1963 is now regarded as one of the greatest speeches in American history.

King received the Nobel Peace Price in 1964 and was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968. A memorial to King was opened on the National Mall in 2011. The law school at UC Davis is also named in King’s honor, and members of the King family have visited the school.

The Davis School for Independent Study is in the Susan B. Anthony Office Building, which also hosts the Davis school district’s administrative offices. Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was a prominent figure in the 19th century movement for women’s suffrage; she was also a co-founder of the Women’s Temperance Movement.

Da Vinci Charter Academy is named for Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519), who was a  painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. His famous paintings include the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper. He also conceptualized technology that would not be developed until centuries after his time, producing drawing that anticipated the modern helicopter, and systems for using solar power.

The Davis Parent Nursery School has a small campus that bears the name of the program that the building hosts. DPNS is a parent cooperative nursery school program.

Jeff Hudson

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