San Francisco’s school board voted on Tuesday to end a 55-year-old grade and test-based admissions policy at Lowell High School and move it to the same lottery system used elsewhere in the district.
After a nearly three-hour hearing, board members voted 5-2 for a resolution to permanently end the academically selective admissions process as part of an attempt to reform Lowell’s culture after a racist incident last month during an anti-racism training and testimony from Black students about other incidents and experiences.
In addition to the admissions change, the resolution would conduct an equity audit to determine an action plan around Lowell student demands by the end of this school year and, later, review districtwide policies. It would also launch a community coalition with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups to inform cultural changes, with a report to the school board by September.
Some students and alumni begged the San Francisco Unified School District board to keep the policy, citing the need to preserve Lowell’s academic quality. Some said the school gave their low-income families a chance at upward mobility.
“We absolutely need to combat racism, but removing merit-based admissions at Lowell is not the way to achieve these goals,” said Nancy Yuan, a Lowell alum. “I support diversity of all types, but let’s uplift our underrepresented students in effective ways.”
Others sought a delay, seeking to send the resolution to committee for further discussion or wait until the impacts of the first year of the school using SFUSD’s regular lottery system are analyzed. The resolution was introduced just one week ago.
“[The Chinese American Democratic Club] wants to address the erasure of Asian American’s within this failed process to address systemic racism and the lack of resources being directed to minorities and economically disadvantaged families,” said Seeyew Mo. “We urge the board to allow more time and expert input to examine admission policies at Lowell High School.”
But other community members have attributed much of the negative aspects of Lowell’s culture, from racism to mental health issues, to its admissions policy and the competition and feelings of superiority that come with it. They also argued that testing presents barriers to access for Black and Latino students, who make up a small minority of the largely Asian and white student population. The school has been sued multiple times and amended its admissions policy to have bands of students throughout the years.
Black and Latino students have called for changes for years, most notably during a 2016 walkout spurred by another racist incident. Little to no changes have been made since.
“You’re telling me in four years they didn’t have the time to make the proper changes?” asked Rionda Batiste of the SFUSD African American Parent Advisory Council. “How many babies have to be damaged in the process? It’s time for a change and it’s time for change now.”
Lowell’s Black Student Union made 23 demands, including efforts to attract and retain underrepresented students, make ethnic studies a graduation requirement, and fire multiple administrators by the 2021-2022 school year. They also made demands around helping Black students apply to Lowell by October.
“I feel like there has been a lot of options for us to work on this as a community,” said Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell senior and student delegate who co-authored the resolution. “Everyone is saying don’t villainize the community but the community is complacent. We have to move past our bias toward each other.”
The admissions policy had already been on hold due to testing limitations presented by the pandemic. But San Francisco Unified School board members said it would likely be out of compliance with current state law if it were reinstated.
“Here we have an admissions process that is in violation of California education code, that is not okay,” said board member Faauuga Moliga, who said he debated whether to give the resolution more time. “We should’ve shut that down a long time ago. Right now it’s rebuilding time, there’s an urgency to this.”
School board members Kevine Boggess and Jenny Lam voted against the resolution. Lam said people wanted to weigh in more and spoke to a need to address anti-Asian rhetoric. Boggess, an SFUSD graduate, sought to broaden the resolution to address district-wide racism.
“For me, it’s important that we are inclusive of the struggles that Black students are facing across the district,” said Boggess, who said he experienced racism and anti-Blackness within the district. “It’s not just SFUSD but it’s our city, our nation. I would hate for this opportunity to pass to only focus on Lowell.”
School Board Vice President Alison Collins, who also co-authored the resolution, argued that many issues of racism are specific to Lowell. Board member Mark Sanchez recalled Lowell being an issue when he first joined the board in 2001.
“When people say ‘let’s slow it down’, we’ve slowed it down for decades,” Sanchez said. “It’s time to act.”
Lowell will permanently enter into SFUSD’s regular admissions process beginning with the 2021-2022 school year. An equity audit will be conducted by the end of the current school year.