Debate over elitism at SF’s Lowell High School reflects broader struggle over merit-based admissions


For decades, San Francisco’s academically competitive Lowell High School has been a point of pride for the city, consistently one of the nation’s top-performing public schools, attracting straight students and producing personalities. leaders in politics, entertainment, literature and science. .

But now the so-called academic gem has come under fire from some who condemned the school’s lack of diversity and raised concerns about racist incidents, leading to the school board’s abrupt proposal this week to eliminate the selective admissions process in favor of random choice. lottery like other high schools in the district.

The plan quickly divided the city, pitting the value of a prestigious public school against the role and responsibility of a public education system meant to serve students equally. Critics argue that not only is Lowell exclusive, but it lacks diversity — it’s predominantly Asian — and has more college-prep courses and more resources than other district high schools.

While the measure is almost certain to pass given that a majority of school board members have already signed on to support it, the debate will likely linger as part of a broader racial reckoning across the country, which also prompted the San Francisco School Board a week ago to vote to rename 44 schools because of their ties to slavery, oppression, colonization and racism.

Several other communities, including New York City, have also considered eliminating selective schools. In October, a public school in Northern Virginia ended the practice of requiring students to take a test and pay $100 to apply, but admission to Thomas Jefferson High School, which is also predominantly Asian and White, will remain competitive, depending on the ratings as well. as a test and other measures.

Higher education is also part of the debate, with the University of California dropping standardized SAT and ACT test requirements this year to increase access.

In San Francisco, school board members said they initiated the measure to end selective admission “in response to the persistent and pervasive systemic racism at Lowell High School.”

The measure comes a week after a three-hour public hearing and conversation about racism in general as well as a recent incident at Lowell, in which students were exposed to pornography, racial slurs and anti-Semitism in an online forum. The investigation into the incident is ongoing.

The question is whether changing the admissions process will impact that diversity or racism at school, students, parents and teachers said.

“There is a fundamental problem in the city and in the school system. Lowell is literally just a reflection of what’s going on in society, not the cause,” said Joyce Yuan, of the Lowell Class of 2003, who opposes the move to a lottery system. “There are many underserved populations that face socio-economic challenges. Maybe their schools aren’t as well maintained and we need to look at what they need to be supported.

What is unclear is whether students at Lowell experience more racism than students at other schools.

Last year, 14% of 11th graders in the district said they had been bullied at school because of their race, ethnicity or national origin at least once in the past 12 months . In recent years, Bay Area schools have experienced incidents of racism, including swastika graffiti and anonymous online slurs or racial harassment.

School board member and co-lead author of the measure Alison Collins did not respond to a request for comment on the prevalence of racism throughout the district.

The measure would also create a community coalition to oversee an “equity audit” and develop a plan to address the “continued toxic racist abuse” that black and students of color have experienced at Lowell, according to the language.

Lowell, with nearly 2,900 students, currently has less than 2% black students versus 8% districtwide and less than 12% Latino students versus 32% across all schools. About a third of students are from low-income families, compared to about half for the district as a whole.

Lowell is considered a high-pressure school, where students compete for top grades to get into top universities, with the school’s programs and course offerings supporting this effort. Last year, Lowell offered more than 30 advanced placement courses, more than any other high school in the district. The list includes AP Latin, AP Music Theory, AP Macroeconomics, and AP Human Geography. Burton High School, by comparison, offers 13 advanced placement courses, while Balboa High offers 12.

Parent Tiffany Abuan, whose son is a Lowell junior, wondered if the admissions change would increase diversity or tackle racism.

” What does it change ? It doesn’t change the lack of buses to bring students from different parts of the city,” she said. “That ignores the fact that not all children feel ready to attend. What we don’t have is a majority of administrators and teachers who are experts in dismantling systems of racial oppression.

Abuan, who is Filipino, said she understood what the proposal was trying to do, but there was little research or community discussion of the impact.

Civil rights officials praised the council’s actions, saying the proposal would end a two-tier system in schools in the district.

“The public school system should be open, and there really shouldn’t be schools where the resources and the best classes and teachers are concentrated,” said Victor Leung, director of education equity at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “The whole school should be providing this great education and not just the students who are already high achievers.”

Todd Trumbull

Tuesday’s debate is expected to be intense – a preview of the discussion already took place when the board voted to temporarily suspend Lowell’s competitive admissions policy last year due to a lack of grades and results at the tests during distance learning. This changed the process for students admitted for next fall.

In addition to concerns raised about racism and diversity, the board argued that a return to the old admissions policy would violate state law that prevents comprehensive high schools from using selective enrollment. The district previously said the admissions process predates this state law and is therefore not subject to it.

Yet many parents, teachers, and alumni have said that eliminating academic achievement from admission would make getting into Harvard University or UC Berkeley haphazard and take away a school that feels like home for academically motivated students, a place where studious nerds can thrive.

“Lowell has issues, including racism, drug dealing, fighting, just like any other school in the district,” said a Lowell social studies teacher, whom The Chronicle agreed not to name. in accordance with its source policy. “Many children transfer from other schools to Lowell because they seek a learning environment where disruptive students do not hold the class back. They crave high-level courses that will prepare them to succeed in the best colleges in this country.

Parent Surveen Singh, who has a second year at Lowell, said there was no doubt anti-racism work needed to be done, but said she believed it could be done without changing “one of the schools top performers in the country.

“The job market is merit-based, college is merit-based,” she said. “Lowell’s high standards, training and rigor have given many students, especially immigrant families, the impetus and skills to attend college and succeed.

“Why the hell would anyone want to take that off?”

Chronicle writer Vanessa Arredondo contributed to this report.

Jill Tucker is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jilltucker

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