In the fall of 2022, the students at Denny Yasuhara Middle School in northeast Spokane will find inspiration even as they reach the front door.
Because names are that powerful. And because that’s what Yasuhara, a beloved teacher and social activist, would have wanted.
In northwest Spokane, hundreds of others will enter the doors of Pauline Flett Middle School and hopefully find a connection with a woman who worked tirelessly to preserve the Salish language for future generations.
And a year later on the South Hill, Carla Peperzak Middle School will invite its students to draw inspiration from a woman who fought to save hundreds of people from the terror of the Nazis.
Spokane Public Schools board members have made some tough decisions in the past year, but few as difficult as the ones announced Wednesday night.
The choices for the new schools’ names were plentiful and worthy, most of them drawing on the rich history of Spokane and beyond.
Out of more than 1,400 suggestions from the public, a screening committee narrowed the choices to nine.
“All of the names are very inspiring,” said board member Nikki Lockwood, who motioned for the slate that was ultimately approved.
But there could be only three.
Capping a two-year process, the board named its new middle schools – the district’s first new buildings in 25 years – for Yasuhara, Flett and Peperzak.
A teacher at Logan Elementary and Garry Middle School, Yasuhara was also president of the Spokane Coalition for Human Rights and was active within the Japanese community.
Yasuhara, who grew up in North Idaho and whose family was sent to an internment camp following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was also known for donating money to buy shoes, clothes and school supplies for his students in need.
Perhaps most significantly, Yasuhara was involved in the creation of the federal Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted each survivor of the American internment camps $20,000 in reparations and issued an apology for the government actions based in “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
Yasuhara died in 2002.
Flett grew up in a Salish-speaking household in the West End of the Spokane Indian Reservation and didn’t learn English until she began attending school.
Guided by a professional linguist in the 1970s, Flett was among the first to use a written alphabet to transcribe words and legends that had survived for centuries only through oral storytelling. She died last year.
Peperzak, now 97 and a resident of Spokane since 2004, had just graduated high school in the Netherlands when the Nazis occupied her homeland.
After joining the Dutch resistance at 18, she forged identity papers, worked as a messenger, published an underground newspaper of Allied military activities on a banned mimeograph machine and hid other Jews.
Peperzak was named the Washingtonian of the Year in 2020.
The other finalists for the northeast middle school were Frances Scott, who was Spokane’s first African American female attorney and a teacher at Rogers High School for more than 30 years; and Beacon Pines, in honor of Spokane’s Beacon Hill, located northeast of the city.
For the northwest middle schools, the other finalists were Eugene Breckenridge, an African American and U.S. Army veteran who taught math and science at middle school and Shadle Park High School; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served as an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1993 until her death in September 2020.
The other finalists for the South Hill middle school were John Oakley, a teacher and coach in the district for 36 years; and York, an explorer and the lone African American on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The move comes just in time: groundbreaking at Yasuhara and Flett are scheduled for next week.
The board also had the option to change the name of the On Track Academy, and did so by adding the name of current Principal Lisa Mattson.
When the new On Track Academy building is completed next year, it will be known as Lisa Mattson On Track Academy.
Here’s more on the other nominees.
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