By Thomas K. Pendergast
Frustrations over a San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) decision to change the admissions policy at Lowell High School in response to the COVID-19 pandemic boiled over at a recent virual school board meeting, as long-simmering racial issues took center stage.
The school board voted unanimously to use the same “lottery” system as other high schools in the SFUSD for incoming freshmen in the 2021-22 school year, instead of admitting students based on a high grade-point-average and standardized tests. Only Lowell and the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in the SFUSD have used the latter system.
The basic problem is that since the schools shut down in March due to the coronavirus, and SFUSD switched to a credit/no credit system to accommodate distance learning, there are no grades for the second semester of the last school year to factor into judging the seventh- and eighth-grade students who might want to apply.
In addition, Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test last spring. These test scores from the seventh grade and first semester of eighth grade are considered – along with GPAs and essays – to determine if students qualify to attend Lowell. The school has a stellar reputation nationally, with graduates that include U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and former California Gov. Pat Brown.
Officially, the change would only apply to the 2021-22 school year, but some critics suspect it will be made permanent. That has many parents very unhappy, claiming it is unfair to students who work hard to get good grades so they can get into Lowell.
During the public comment section at a board meeting on Oct. 20, one parent called the change “a kick in the gut” to students and parents who have already been through a lot, while others called it “sneaky” and “clearly political.”
Tim Turner, an alumnus from the class of 1964, said the kids who want to get into Lowell are used to working hard to get good grades, but using the lottery system might be setting less disciplined students up for failure in such an academically rigorous environment.
“You’re going to throw kids in there who have not had that experience, and you’re going to expect them to succeed,” Turner said. “Either that or your motive is really to eliminate the entrance requirements for Lowell altogether, which, if that’s your expectation, then you should be forthright and say that.”
California Assemblymember Phil Ting also spoke to the board against the change, despite the pandemic.
“I understand that we don’t have the seventh grade, second-semester grades; we don’t have the SBAC test score,” Ting said. “But we do have the seventh grade first semester and we do have the eighth grade first semester, So I really would encourage them to at least, at a minimum, use that data. And if they really feel very strongly about using test scores, they can go back and look at the sixth grade test scores.”
Ting noted that his child is an eighth grade student currently in the school system and suggested that the lottery system is unfair to the students who have been preparing for years for this admissions process.
“I would just like to urge (the board) not to move to a complete lottery,” he said. “Given the lateness of this, the parents have been waiting for frankly months for this announcement. And to have this very radical departure be brought forward literally a week and a half before you have to decide is very discombobulating for families all around the district.”
When those supporting the change, however, called in for public comment, racial issues came into the conversation front and center.
Virginia Marshall, president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators and a member of the NAACP, said she supports the change and then offered some scathing commentary.
“Lowell High School members, alums and parents think they are a sacred cow,” Marshall said. “There should be no sacred cows in SFUSD schools. All schools should be great. When the students walked out of Lowell four years ago, I was right there with them. We met with African American alumni from 30 years ago. The same racism they experienced 30 years ago, the students four years ago shared the heartbreaking, heart-tearing experience. So this way every child should have the opportunity to go to Lowell High School.”
Marshall was referring to a protest in 2016 in which 20 Black students walked out of class to bring attention to and to protest what they felt was racist behavior by other students.
She also recounted when her oldest child was in middle school, a teacher suggested that the girl go to Lowell.
“I said absolutely, positively no,” Marshall said. “I want her to have a well-rounded education and she would not get it at Lowell, socially. She would be an outcast. So I thank the Board and the commissioners for this opportunity so African American students especially, and our Latinx students especially, would have the opportunity to go to Lowell High School.”
Lowell alumna Bivett Brackett also supported the change.
Brackett said she was at Lowell High School when they lowered the criteria for admissions about 25 years ago.
“Lowering those standards – or what they say are lowering the standards – does not change Lowell’s level of instruction,” she said. “The idea that inclusion automatically means the quality of the school goes down is also unfounded. Most students and families already self-select out of even applying to Lowell High School. So, the idea that all these students who are low-performing or would not qualify would rush to apply to attend there is patently false and just another form of disgusting fear-mongering by adults who should know better.
“I find it equally appalling that every time Lowell admissions comes up before this Board, we hear the same racist dog whistles about students who get in as ‘merit-based,’ which we all know is not necessarily true,” she said. “A lot of my peers who were merit-based actually cheated their way through the four years at Lowell.”
At several points in the Zoom meeting, technical difficulties took center stage. At one point, SFUSD Commissioner Alison M. Collins could be heard answering her phone and saying: “Yeah, I’m listening to a bunch of racist people.”
But it was after public comment, when a student representative to the board spoke to those opposing the change, that passions on both sides boiled over.
“You all need to stop protecting the system and start protecting the students,” she said. “Where were all of you when all these stories of sexual assault were coming out? None of you asserted your white privilege then to offer up your lawyers to fight these battles.
“Where were you when this 2016 walkout happened? The only people who were there were the Black alumni. Where were you when these kids were killing themselves, putting the pressure on SFUSD to allocate wellness resources?
“You guys are here at the wrong time,” the student representative continued. “I get that a lot of your students are committed to going to Lowell and glorify Lowell, but you would be heartbroken if your student got raped, killed themselves, or were called a ‘n—-r’ on a daily basis. Am I correct?”
Apparently some other people were unmuted because a man answered her by saying “that has nothing to do with this discussion.”
“Yes it does,” the student shot back.
Suddenly multiple people could be heard raising their voices, yelling and saying that it didn’t pertain to the discussion as the whole situation became virtual Zoom pandemonium.
Board Vice President Gabriela Lopez restored order by having those interrupting taken offline.
At the meeting, Board President Mark Sanchez connected the admissions process with the racial issues of the campus.
“We have to deal with the culture of that school,” Sanchez said. “The culture of the school is explicitly and implicitly tied to its enrollment process. They’re hand in hand. The culture of the school is toxic.”
In the end, the Board voted unanimously to approve using the lottery syste\m for admission to Lowell.
To listen to a recording of the meeting, go to: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1cwxA2S6CPOS1ip4TIrWjHVY1FWeFLpxQ/view .