Renaming Schools, Changing Lowell H.S.’s Admission Policy and Getting Students Safely Back into Classrooms Result in Community Backlash
By Thomas K. Pendergast
The school board for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) was busy in February changing the admission policy of Lowell High School and dealing with a lawsuit while also trying to reopen schools during a pandemic.
The district also moved ahead with a highly contentious plan to rename 44 schools throughout the district.
And looming on the horizon is a recall petition targeting three school board members: President Gabriela Lopez, Vice President Alison M. Collins and Commissioner Faauuga Moliga. Organizers for the recall petition claim that 1,200 people have already registered to sign the petition when it becomes available.
For now, however, the board has announced that it will back off the renaming process in a statement issued by Lopez as an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
“There have been many distracting public debates as we’ve been working to reopen our schools,” Lopez said. “School renaming has been one of them. It was a process begun in 2018 with a timeline that didn’t anticipate a pandemic. I acknowledge and take responsibility that mistakes were made in the renaming process.
“We recognize we need to slow down. And we need to provide more opportunities for community input,” she continued. “Reopening will be our only focus until our children and young people are back in schools. We’re canceling renaming committee meetings for the time being. We will be revising our plans to run a more deliberative process moving forward, which include engaging historians at nearby universities to help.”
News of renaming local schools named for American presidents – including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt – and other significant figures in U.S. history made national headlines in most news networks. Fierce blowback from critics of the plan, including from SF Mayor London Breed, seems to have influenced the board’s decision to regroup and reconsider the renaming process.
“In the meantime, this is the last time I’ll comment publicly on renaming until schools are reopened,” Lopez said. “We will not be taking valuable time from our board agendas to further discuss this, as we need to prioritize reopening.”
Another hot topic for the school board has been the task of getting students safely back into classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Feb. 3, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced he is suing the district, alleging that the school board’s reopening plan is “woefully inadequate” and does not meet the basic requirements set by the state, including “to offer classroom-based instruction whenever possible.” The lawsuit seeks a court order directing the school district to prepare to offer in-person instruction “now that it is possible to do so safely.”
“It’s a shame it has come to this,” Herrera said. “The City has offered resources, logistical help and public health expertise. Unfortunately, the leadership of the school district and the educators’ union can’t seem to get their act together. The Board of Education and the school district have had more than 10 months to roll out a concrete plan to get these kids back in school. So far they have earned an F. Having a plan to make a plan doesn’t cut it.”
The Chronicle also reported that on Feb. 10 San Francisco attorney Paul D. Scott sent a demand letter addressed to Lopez alleging a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open-meeting law, arguing that the board did not properly notify the public that it was making a final decision to rename the school sites and provided advance notice only that it would decide on a list of “potential” schools to be renamed. He said families and the public were denied due process, and renaming should be handled on a school-by-school basis.
According to the Chronicle, the letter gave the board 30 days to reverse the decision or face legal action.
Then, on Feb. 9, the board voted to make permanent a change in the admission policy of Lowell High School, moving away from its merit-based system toward the lottery system most of the other district schools use.
Since the schools shut down a year ago 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 to Lowell.
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.
When first voted on last October, the change only applied to the 2021-22 school year. But even then, some critics suspected it would be made permanent, which made many parents unhappy. They claimed it is unfair to students who work hard to get good grades so they can get into Lowell.
During the vote to make the change permanent, Commissioner Mark Sanchez asserted that the merit-based system contributed to a climate of racism at Lowell.
“Lowell and the schools like it across the country, whether they want to admit it or not, or people want to admit it or not, have served to segregate kids, to keep Black and Brown kids away from other kids,” Sanchez said. “That’s why they exist. That’s the main reason they exist.”
Then, on Jan. 20, an anti-racism lesson using an online bulletin board program called Padlet included anti-Black and anti-Semitic slurs, pornography and racially offensive words. Padlet can be used by students and teachers to post online notes on a common page. Notes posted by teachers and students can contain links, videos, images and document files.
Media reports show the school’s response was mixed and conflicting; with school officials denouncing the posts while suggesting it could have been hackers from outside the school. Officials conceded nonetheless that it was “highly likely” to have been the work of a Lowell student.