Selective admissions for Lowell could be set aside due to COVID-19

Some parents, alumni opposing temporary change for academically elite high school

San Francisco school officials on Tuesday will hear a controversial proposal to temporarily end Lowell High School’s competitive merit-based admissions.

Under the proposal, which was prompted by the coronavirus pandemic and would apply only to incoming ninth-graders for the 2021-22 school year, Lowell would instead be placed into the same lottery system used by all other San Francisco Unified School District sites other than Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.

Since 1966, Lowell High School has selected students based on their grade point average and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test scores from 7th grade and the first semester of 8th grade. It’s a rare admissions process for a public school and one that has been criticized as elitist and exclusive.

But the district changed spring grades to credit or no credit for grades 6-12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Gov. Gavin Newsom called off administering the SBAC standardized test under emergency orders, rendering the usual admissions criteria useless.

“With Lowell, just as with all our high schools, we’re committed to academic rigor and equitable access,” Superintendent Vincent Matthews said in the announcement on Friday. “This policy is a response to the pandemic and the recommendation is that we do this for one year given current conditions.”

The proposal has already drawn opposition. Since it was made public Friday, a petition has been launched urging SFUSD to consider other ways to adapt the admissions process. The petition, which had garnered more than 2,300 signatures as of Monday evening, calls for transparency and a family voice in the decision-making process while preserving merit-based admission at Lowell.

“San Francisco families caught off guard by the proposal for a 100% lottery admission at Lowell would like to know the district has exhausted all options to maintain the academic legacy at Lowell High School,” the petition reads.”Parents, students, and alumni are worried that the transition will become permanent and remove one of the two remaining academic and merit-based public high schools in the city.”

Families for San Francisco, a newly formed group under the San Francisco Parent Political Action Committee, is behind the petition. The group threatened to take responses by candidates for the Board of Education and Board of Supervisors into consideration in their election endorsements.

School Board Vice President Gabriela Lopez said the proposal comes at a good time. While Tuesday’s proposal is specific to Lowell High School, SFUSD is also working through changes to the student assignment system.

“Personally, I’m excited for this,” Lopez said. “I think it opens up an opportunity for students citywide who want to go to Lowell, to go to Lowell.”

Lopez noted that there have been questions about the legality of Lowell’s admissions process, as well as concerns about diversity. In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 50 percent of students at Lowell were Asian American, 17 percent were white, 12 percent were Hispanic and less than 2 percent were Black.

“It’s not a legal process for public high schools, that’s another thing we need to recognize,” she said. “When SBAC testing is a factor, we already know it’s going to get in the way of certain students being able to apply.”

Changes to Lowell’s admissions process, including a provision to allow entrance to all qualified applicants from Willie Brown Middle School in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, were last approved by the school board in 2018. Those changes were also opposed by some parents.

The Board of Education will hear the proposal at a special meeting on Tuesday at 3 p.m. and vote on Oct. 20, when student assignment changes will also be discussed.

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