San Diego Unified School District

Controversial Name Change: Ceremony Marks Official Unveiling of Canyon Hills High School In Tierrasanta

School had been previously been known as Junipero Serra High School since its opening in 1976.

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Students and staff at the former Junipero Serra High in Tierrasanta are celebrating the school’s new name, which has officially been changed to Canyon Hills High School.

While many approve of the change, long-time residents are upset with the move and have started a petition to rescind the name change.

New signage was unveiled as part of a ceremony to honor and recognize the name change on Monday, which by no coincidence was Indigenous People’s Day. The ceremony included several Native American dignitaries who praised the move and offered blessings through song.

“For all of you who helped make this happen, we praise you for your courage. We praise you for your bravery, and we praise you for teaching the truth," said Dr. Stan Rodriquez, with the Kumeyaay Band of Indians.

The school opened in 1976 as Junipero Serra, named after the Franciscan Friar who introduced the California Mission System. The school’s mascot was the Conquistador.

But on the heels of the Black Lives Matter and racial equality movement, two sisters started an online petition to change the school name.

“A lot of students surprisingly didn’t know the history of Serra or the Conquistadors,” said Charlotte Taila.

Father Serra’s legacy is complicated. He came to the new world establishing missions and converting natives to Christianity. But all the while, say Native American historians, the indigenous people were mistreated and stripped of their land and culture. Spanish soldiers known as conquistadors were responsible for wiping away a portion of the indigenous people.

Today, many California cities are deciding on how to manage the legacy of Serra. Many of his public statues have been toppled in protest.

At the high school in Tierrasanta, given a choice of several names (which included renaming the school Serra, without the name Junipero), petition respondents chose the name Canyon Hills Rattlers, according to the school principal. The old brown and gold colors of the school were replaced with red and black.

“As principal, I couldn’t be more proud of the work the students have done and all they have accomplished,” said Principal Dr. Erica Renfree.

While Renfree encouraged students to enact change, she’s also been the target of angry residents who say they were not allowed to be part of the name change process. They question survey data provided by Dr. Renfree to the San Diego Unified School District board.

“There is no evidence of a student vote that shows overwhelming support as she claims,” Chuck Cox said.

Cox, who has lived in Tierrasanta for 48 years is chairman of a group called the Preserve Serra Committee. The group has started a petition of their own to rescind the name change.

“This Community was not involved in any way of a substantial nature in the school name change. We were not allowed to vote, we were not even invited to vote,” Cox said.

But in a statement, the district said there was an extensive community input campaign, including virtual town halls over a four-month period.

It should be noted the discussion period was at the height of the pandemic lockdown.

On Monday, SDUSD board president Richard Barrera was part of the ceremony to unveil Canyon Hills' new look. The marquis in front of the school has a Kumeyaay translation.

“You confronted history of the name of this school, and what that represented, and the history of what happened to indigenous people,” Barrera said to a group of students. “You’ve made this place something we can all be proud of. Congratulations Canyon Hills Rattlers.”

Meanwhile, a non-profit group called the Thomas More Society based in Illinois has filed a lawsuit over the name change claiming, in part, the change is an attack on religion. A temporary restraining order to prevent the change was rejected.

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