Lowell’s selective admissions process put on hold this year — and more changes may be in the works

School board votes unanimously to use normal student assignment lottery for competitive school

Lowell High School’s controversial and selective admissions process will be put on hold this year due to coronavirus.

The Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday to admit incoming ninth graders to Lowell based on the San Francisco’s Unified School District’s usual school assignment lottery system, rather than the school’s unique merit-based admissions process.

Commissioners also indicated a long-term change to the admissions process was needed down the line.

“There seems to be a hunger by most of the board to deal with Lowell long-term,” said Board President Mark Sanchez.

Lowell usually selects students based on a combination of grade point averages and standardized test scores, both of which were made unavailable by the pandemic. School board members approved a credit or no credit system for the spring semester interrupted by shelter-in-place orders, while Gov. Gavin Newsom called off standardized tests.

However the temporary change prompted by coronavirus may end up prompting a broader conversation about merit-based admissions, its effect on students of color, and Lowell’s school culture, which some speakers described as “toxic.”

While several welcomed the change as equitable, the temporary proposal for the Westside high school set off an angry — and often ugly — response from many SFUSD parents, students, and alumni. Many argued that it was a disservice to 8th graders who had worked hard at the change to get in and sought an alternative process that would maintain Lowell’s exemption from the student lottery system.

“I don’t understand what merit has to do with racism,” said Andrew Tang, a SFUSD grad. “Merit is all about individual abilities.”

Critics say 44 years of selective admissions has created a lack of diversity at Lowell High School, which is often attended by students from well-resourced middle schools. More than half of its students in the 2018-2019 school year were Asian, 17 percent were white, 12 percent were Hispanic, and less than 2 percent were Black.

That’s compared to SFUSD’s demographic makeup that year of 35 percent Asian, 27 percent Latino, 15 percent white, and 7 percent Black students.

SFUSD has previously attempted to bring more diversity to Lowell, most recently in 2018.

The change recommended by Superintendent Vincent Matthews would only apply to incoming freshmen for the 2021-22 school year. But the legality of the admissions process has been questioned before and some school board members said a permanent fix was needed.

Ruth Asawa School of the Arts is the only other San Francisco public school with selective admissions, but it has specialized programs. Lowell is heralded largely for its general academic quality.

“Lowell is no different than a gifted and talented program designed to appease white parents like myself while siphoning resources,” said Karin Little, parent of an 8th grader. “Like many others, I advocate that it becomes a permanent change.”

Commissioner Jenny Lam introduced an amendment that would create a task force to consider permanent changes to Lowell’s admissions process in response to concerns that the proposal was rushed. She withdrew the amendment, however, after Commissioner Alison Collins called for a commitment to address the school’s toxic culture, which the two will incorporate into a resolution for introduction later on.

While some Lowell students and alumni expressed worry that the school’s quality would decline without academic screening, others attested to the ability of students to adapt to the rigor, as well as the mental effects of having test scores tied to self-worth.

Adding to problems with the school’s culture, Black students have spoken up about racism at the school in the past and even staged a walkout in 2016. Student delegate Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell senior and member of its Black Student Union, has received online harassment about the admissions process since bringing it back up last week.

Many public commenters and commissioners denounced the adults who targeted her.

“To all the people who have been harassing me on social media…I want to say hi, I’m alive and well and I hope you are, too,” Hines-Foster said. “I feel greatly embarrassed for the way you conducted yourselves on these calls.”

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