After decades of Black and Latino students decrying what has been described as a “racist culture” at Lowell High School, a proposal to address those concerns that could spell the end of the school’s selective admissions policy debuted at the school board on Tuesday.
The resolution seeking an equity review, action plan and change in policies comes after anti-Black and anti-Semitic slurs and images flooded an anti-racist lesson last month. Notably, the proposal also seeks to end Lowell’s selective admissions policy, which is described as “out of compliance with state law.”
“A lot of our culture is formed from admissions,” said Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell senior and Black Student Union leader on the board. “I don’t think our school has made significant changes where they deserve to keep admissions. We’re in the same place we’ve been for years.”
Lowell is the San Francisco Unified School District’s only school that admits students based on academics and has long been majority Asian and white students with Black and Latino students in the minority, in numbers disproportionate to the district’s demographics.
To great backlash, the school board temporarily moved Lowell to the regular lottery admissions system this year due to lack of letter grades under the pandemic in October and indicated a permanent fix was needed.
A number of speakers at Tuesday’s meeting agreed change was needed to tackle racism but were concerned about not having enough time to solicit feedback — a sentiment that Board member Jenny Lam echoed in remarks to The Examiner. Others sought to keep the admissions policy intact, while a math teacher outright denied witnessing any racism at the school.
“I have never practiced or observed racism in the Lowell population,” said Jeremy Gribler. “We have to do better for all minorities in San Francisco. However, to make Lowell a scapegoat for isolated, racially motivated incidents and shut down its unique academic structure as retaliation, it’s not the right approach.”
Many, including alumni from decades ago, have pointed to the admissions policy as a major cause for experiences of racism and isolation. Superintendent Vincent Matthews himself recounted last week that he refused to attend the school after gaining admission as a teen, knowing the culture that awaited.
“In San Francisco, I always felt that we were a very open, liberal city where I never really experienced racism just right in my face,” said acting Capt. Yulanda Williams, a Lowell alumni and president of Officers for Justice. “It wasn’t really until I got to Lowell High School that I was faced with what I read about, heard about, some things my parents had experienced in Louisiana. They came to California to get away from the racism.”
But far more needs to be done than address the student body makeup and feelings of superiority that may come with selective admissions, as the resolution by Board Vice President Alison Collins, President Gabriela Lopez and Board member Matt Alexander outlines.
“Anyone who says these decisions are ‘rushed’ clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the relationship between the admissions policy and discrimination we’ve [seen] over the last several decades,” Collins told The Examiner. “The admissions policy alone won’t entirely fix the problems with racist abuse and discrimination at the school. But it is clearly a key contributor.”
Should the resolution pass, SFUSD would undergo an equity audit that would review demands made by Black students during a 2016 walkout and create an action plan with results published by the end of the current school year. It would also review district-wide policies around harassment, anti-racist curriculum, equitable distribution of extracurricular activities, and systems for reporting racist abuse and sexual harassment.
SFUSD would partner with the Human Rights Commission’s Office of Racial Equity and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and its state and city chapters to form a community coalition. Black student union leaders, African American Parent Advisory Council, San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators and others would inform work to be done on Lowell with outside funding.
“Our students are not safe, they’re under mental duress at Lowell,” said Virginia Marshall, president of SFABSE. “It just breaks the students’ spirit. The desire is here to transform the school. We have to stop this culture that ‘I’m better than you.’”
The community coalition would report to the school board by September.
Alexander noted that reforming Lowell under a community process would likely be a process taking months or years.
“Even if we change the admissions policy, Lowell can still be a school of excellence, Alexander said. “The question is, what will that look like? In some ways, Lowell needs to find its identity as an anti-racist school of excellence and that’s not going to happen overnight. That’s a conversation we need to hear from all people who care about Lowell.”
The school board first planned to vote on the resolution next Tuesday but will confirm by the end of the week, Collins said.