Proposal to change Lowell admissions triggers angry response

School board members were confronted by a tense and sometimes unruly crowd Tuesday angered by a proposal to temporarily end...

School board members were confronted by a tense and sometimes unruly crowd Tuesday angered by a proposal to temporarily end Lowell High School’s selective admissions process.

San Francisco Unified School District staff have recommended conducting Lowell admissions through the same lottery system used for other schools this fall, rather than admitting students based on a combination of grade point average and a standardized test.

With credit or no-credit grading implemented for the spring semester and standardized testing halted due to the coronavirus, the normal admissions process at Lowell would not be possible, according to district officials.

The proposed change, announced Friday, would only apply to incoming ninth graders for the 2021-22 academic year.

But it prompted an outcry from parents, Lowell alumni, and some students at Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, with many decrying it as sudden, sneaky and unfair to students who had worked hard for a chance to get into the nationally recognized, academically competitive school. A petition urging the district to consider different solutions has gathered nearly 5,000 signatures.

The proposal led to an angry, sometimes unruly public comment period, in which shouts from the audience sometimes interrupted other speakers.

“I feel like my rights are being violated,” said Oscar, an eighth grader who said he’d been working hard for good grades to get into Lowell. “I think that SFUSD can take steps to make sure equity happens…without hurting eighth graders like me and my friends.”

Race hung over the debate. Lowell is one of only two schools in the district, along with Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, to use a merit-based admissions process, but a lack of diversity has long been an issue there. More than half of Lowell students were Asian American, 17 percent were white, 12 percent were Hispanic and less than 2 percent were Black in the 2018-19 school year.

Some alumni and students acknowledged the need to change Lowell’s admissions process to increase diversity, including some who made it in after the process was tweaked to bring in more students of color. Lowell senior Jessi Yu cautioned against glorifying Lowell, which has had allegations of sexual violence and racism, while alum Bivett Brackett called concerns over declining academic quality “fear-mongering by adults who should know better.

“Lowering those standards, or what they say lowers standards, does not change the level of instruction,” said Brackett, who got in after a diversity push. “We hear the same racist dog whistle about students who will get in merit-based [schools], which we know is not necessarily true.”

Board members Jenny Lam and Stevon Cook expressed concerns over the timing of the proposal and lack of transparency, while Board President Mark Sanchez and Vice President Gabriela Lopez noted that further discussion of a long-term solution to Lowell’s admissions process was needed. The proposal comes as SFUSD is working to overhaul its student assignment system, which will be presented to the full board on Oct. 20.

The meeting also highlighted the occasional perils of conducting a public meeting over Zoom. After opposition had their time, Board member Alison Collins was heard in a hot mic moment saying, “I’m listening to a bunch of racists.”

Some public commenters interrupted student delegate Shavonne Hines-Foster, a senior at Lowell and organizer with its Black Student Union, after she pointed out the silence over Black students being called slurs at Lowell.

“This was not a good day for San Francisco,” said Commissioner Rachel Norton. “What I have heard, from people who proclaim to support our system, is disgusting. Could this proposal have been aired earlier in the summer? Yeah, maybe. I don’t think was the most urgent problem that staff needed to solve over the last six months.”

The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Oct. 20 and also discuss student assignment changes.

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