Lowell High School

Lowell H.S. To Return to Academic Achievement Admissions

By Thomas K. Pendergast

An admission policy based on academic achievement is coming back to Lowell High School in the fall of 2023 after the new San Francisco Board of Education voted 4-3 against extending its current lottery system. 

The rejection of the previous school board’s decision to replace the “merit-based” system that focused on grades and test scores with the same lottery system used by all except one of the other SFUSD schools, was tempered by a unanimous vote to set up a special task force to come up with a policy for a consensus around a highly contentious issue. 

Photo by Thomas K. Pendergast.

The vote to bring back the merit-based system may also be in violation of state law. 

Section 35160.5 of the California Education Code requires that the “selection policy for a school that receives requests for admission in excess of the capacity of the school that ensures that selection of pupils to enroll in the school is made through a random, unbiased process that prohibits an evaluation of whether a pupil should be enrolled based upon the pupil’s academic or athletic performance.” 

This law has been in the education code since at least 1994 and in 2018 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the merit system may violate that law. 

Yet, it wasn’t until February of 2021 that the previous school board, three of whose members have since been recalled by voters, officially recognized this when racial issues at the high school came to a head and it was acknowledged in a resolution to change that policy. 

Why it took so long for the school board to consider the law in its policy decisions remains unclear. 

 Board President Jenny Lam, Commissioners Ann Hsu, Lisa Weismann-Ward, and Lainie Motamedi voted to restore Lowell’s merit-based admission. Hsu, Weismann-Ward, and Motamedi were all appointed by Mayor London Breed following the recall of three board members in February.

Voting against were Board Vice President Kevine Boggess, Commissioners Matt Alexander and Mark Sanchez. 

Sanchez has been on the school board since 2001 and was the commissioner who had previously brought the idea to the school board of destroying the “Life of George Washington” murals at George Washington High School by painting them over, calling this destruction of WPA art that had been a part of the school from its beginning a form of “reparations” for past racial injustices.

This effort ultimately failed when a judge ruled against the district because the way the Board went about it violated the California Environmental Quality Act.  

He was also the key commissioner who led the failed effort to rename 44 schools throughout the district.  

Unlike the recalled former commissioners Gabriela Lopez, Alice Collins and Faauuga Moliga, Sanchez was not eligible for the recall because he was re-elected in 2020. Under the current San Francisco law, commissioners cannot be recalled if they are elected within six months prior to the initiation of the recall effort, which he was. 

At the recent school board meeting that brought back the merit-based system, Sanchez read a communication he said was from the local chapter of the NAACP to the SFUSD into the record. 

“It builds on some of our discussion last week around the racist history of this district and how we got here, how we got Lowell,” Sanchez said. “In 1961, when the San Francisco Unified School District had decided to move the city-wide Lowell High School out of the predominantly African American neighborhood of the Western Addition and into the predominantly white Sunset neighborhood and then to place a student assignment zone around it to advantage that white community there, it was the NAACP and its counsel who appeared before the Board of Education and led the Civil Rights opposition to that very plan that would have excluded not only Chinese students but all students of color from enjoying that asset. 

“In that moment, the attorney from the NAACP said, by and large, it excludes the great bulk of Black, Chinese, Mexican American and other minority or low-income groups. By and large, it will exclude children of families which live across the tracks from the arbitrary district, conceived in an unworthy compromise,” Sanchez said. 

“It is equally important to recall at this time there was no standardized test or specific GPA requirement for Lowell. Students were simply admitted on the basis of recommendations of principals, counselors or other educational leaders who made the subjective decision that a given student was ‘Lowell material.’ This naturally contributed to so few recommendations for students of color.

“It was not until 1966 that a GPA policy was first implemented at Lowell and it wasn’t until much later that a standardized test was introduced. It is simply a false narrative to assert that Lowell has always been a merit-based school, as measured by a test score and GPA,” Sanchez said. 

Commissioner Ann Hsu, on the other hand, supported ending the lottery system. 

“Lowell’s criteria-based admissions policy should not be blamed for our failure to prepare black and brown students for academic rigor,” Hsu said. “We need to do better in elementary schools and middle schools. Lowell’s criteria-based admissions policies should not be blamed for racist incidents at school. We need to do better with anti-racist education inside every school. 

“Lowell’s criteria-based admissions policy itself is not racist,” she said. “It holds every student of every race to the same high standards. If we, as a school district, (are) going to focus on student outcomes, then we should focus on helping every student learn and reach their full potential. We should not focus on making percentage numbers and graphs look good on paper for adults.” 

Commissioner Matt Alexander opposed the merit-based system, claiming that while it was initially created 20 years ago in an effort to desegregate the school, it failed to do that.  

“We now have two decades of data showing that, regardless of its good intentions, the actual outcome … is that it produces racist outcomes,” Alexander said. “It also excludes low-income students, recent immigrants who are learning English and students with special needs, so the question we’re faced with is does this Board agree that those students deserve to be educated at Lowell. 

“We also know that the (merit-based) system is very likely illegal under California state law. So, if we implement that system again, we are deliberately violating the law; in other words, we’re engaging in civil disobedience. If we engage in civil disobedience by reinstating the (merit-based) system, we’re actually engaging in civil disobedience to uphold a segregated school.” 

Commissioner Lisa Weissman-Ward opposed extending the lottery. 

“I see the issue of Lowell as a reflection of a scarcity of a high-quality education that our district is offering,” Weissman-Ward said. “This means we need more not less, and this is going to require real political will and a very steady moral compass to get this done.”

Weissman-Ward said she believes there is a better chance of elevating the quality of education by supporting schools like Lowell, as opposed to eliminating them, and acknowledging the benefits of an academically rigorous program.

Board President Jenny Lam said she hopes a task force will be able to gather meaningful feedback from the community.     

“The resolution also creates a task force to create a fair and transparent admissions policy for selective enrollment high schools, including Lowell … clearly an issue that has divided our communities, and we must move on as a community,” Lam said. “My hope is that a task force will undertake meaningful community engagement processes that will help our community be heard and eventually to heal.”

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