Toxic grind culture is one reason to end merit-based admissions at Lowell High School

Debbie Lum’s documentary “Try Harder” casts new light on Board of Ed debate

Honestly, the San Francisco Board of Education has made so many clueless, short-sighted and arrogant decisions it is hard to keep track of them all.

Let’s just say it isn’t easy to muster a successful recall campaign, but this board has managed to make it happen. An election has been set for February and it is entirely likely three board members, Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga, will be replaced.

A good part of the recall fervor came from parents of students at Lowell High School. Selected as one of the top 100 high schools in the nation (#78 in the 2021 survey by U.S. News & World Report), Lowell touts its high-achieving, merit-based admission policy.

Only those with the highest grade point averages get into Lowell.

But last February, the board decided, unilaterally, that was unfair. They voted to change Lowell’s admission to a student lottery, like at other San Francisco public schools.

The firestorm of outrage from the Lowell community has been formidable. There have been several lawsuits, and Lowell parents were instrumental in pushing the recall.

Dropping merit-based admission has become a defining issue in the school board controversy. Critics say it shows the board is out of touch, arrogant and clueless.

And yet, after watching the documentary “Try Harder,” about Lowell by San Francisco film maker Debbie Lum, I reached a surprising conclusion.

The school board may have gotten this right.

Whoa. Hold on. Hear me out.

This is still the same entitled, short-sighted group that wanted to cancel Abraham Lincoln’s name (among 40+ others) from a local school.

And in fact, they couldn’t even pull off the change at Lowell correctly. A judge ruled the board “plainly failed” to follow the Brown Act, a sunshine law that requires local government bodies to conduct open and public meetings about any action they are going to take.

Instead of saying they were considering changing the admission policy, the board said the resolution was in response to “ongoing, systematic racism.”

Superior Court Judge Ethan Schulman said the board gave “entirely inadequate notice to parents and others that the board was considering eliminating Lowell’s merit-based admissions policy.”

That cleared the way for a return to the old admission system at Lowell. However, Superintendent Vincent Matthews said there wasn’t time to re-implement the change and the district wouldn’t bring back merit-admissions until after the 2022-23 school year.

I’m not sure they should.

Filmmaker Lum, who hosted a Q&A after the screening I saw, is playing her message very middle of the road. Sure the school is tough, she says, but the students are resilient and proud of going to Lowell.

But it is impossible to overlook some facts. The film presents a searing look at a toxic culture that grinds high-achieving students into sleepless nights, grade panic and the feeling that whatever they do is not enough. They must, as the title says, “try harder.”

Early in the film, one of the students jokes that Lowell is “Tiger Mom central.”

That brings up one of the obvious points — the majority of Lowell students, between 50-60% in any given year, are Asian.

There are some parents in the film who clearly are driving their children too hard. Lum said some are first-generation immigrants who are unfamiliar with the school system. They push because they believe that getting into a good school, like Lowell, and a good college, will give their kids a better life.

Fair enough. We watch those parents and bow our heads. This kind of stress can’t be good for teenagers.

But what really comes through is that it is how the culture of a school like Lowell beats the students down. No matter how many hours they study or how little sleep they get, there’s always someone doing it better.

“You get used to feeling mediocre,” one student says. “Little by little.”

This isn’t new. Back in February, the Examiner ran an opinion piece by Debbie Lee, a former Lowell student. Her parents were first-generation immigrants from China “who viewed education as a way to get ahead in life.”

Lee excelled in math in elementary school, but at Lowell she struggled. She couldn’t understand why she wasn’t getting better grades. She thought everyone else was thriving, while she wasn’t getting it.

“In four years,” she wrote, “I went from being a self-assured kid to one who constantly doubted myself.”

You hear similar feelings from the students in the movie – who are, by the way, engaging, witty and self-aware. It makes it even harder to hear them express the feeling that no matter how hard they work, they aren’t making the grade.

Inevitably, there are tragedies. In 2002, Thomas Hoo, a junior at Lowell, committed suicide. It seemed incomprehensible. Hoo got good grades, was captain of the football team, on the wrestling team and had lots of friends.

And yet, people who knew him said he never felt he was doing enough. He placed second in All-City wrestling. Why couldn’t he have been first?

“Try Harder” ends with the big reveal. The payoff for all this anxiety, hard work and lack of sleep is admission to a top college.

After four years at Lowell, students have learned to lower expectations. One student says you see a lot of freshmen and sophomores wearing Stanford shirts and hoodies. But by the time they are juniors, they know the sad reality.

They are almost certainly not getting into Stanford. It is the hardest college to get into in the nation. Only 4.4% of all applicants are accepted.

They pivot to other options. One student applies to dozens of top schools. A female student, captain of the tennis team and editor of the school paper, who seems like a perfect candidate, stresses out as she checks her phone to see if she’s been accepted.

And here’s the kicker.

They don’t get in.

At least a lot of them don’t. We watch them check the websites and learn that they’ve been waitlisted, or turned down, by their dream schools. And then by their second choice.

It’s wrenching to watch.

But it is also revealing to hear that some of them are disappointed they are going to have to “settle” for UC Berkeley.

This for a school ranked the No. 2 top public university in the United States. That’s not good enough?

Honestly, is this what we’re trying to create in a public school? It is hard not to think that this merit-based admission system has created a monster; that instead of turning out confident, thoughtful, well-rounded adults, it is creating unhappy kids who feel there is no prize at the end of the treadmill.

As Lum has said, there’s the old joke at Lowell, which was founded in 1856.

“Lowell High School,” she says, “Where your best has not been good enough since 1856.”

That would be funny if it didn’t ring so true.

Contact C.W. Nevius at Twitter: @cwnevius