Lowell H.S. changes admissions policy; district continues distance learning until spring

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Vincent Matthews says the plan to get students back in classrooms is for spring 2021. 

At Tuesday's board meeting, Matthews said the district will spend the next eight weeks preparing for the students' in-person instruction as distance learning continues due to the pandemic.

But it was another topic at the board meeting that was much thornier: a plan to change the admissions policy at prestigious Lowell High School. 

San Francisco's Board of Education spent three hours Tuesday night, discussing the issue.

Before them was a proposal to shelve academic merit for one year, 2021-22, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and opt for a lottery selection instead.

Middle school students applying for next year do not have the usual grades and test scores on which Lowell admission depends.

But a lottery, for many of those students, feels like bait and switch.

"We try really hard to get into this school, and suddenly you announce it's going to be 100 percent lottery which is really not fair," said an 8th grade student named Paige, participating in public comment via Zoom. 

"For the past few years I've been working pretty hard to get into Lowell and I'm disappointed to hear the lottery system will lower my chances of getting in," said another 8th grader named Isaac.

For many trustees and others participating in the meeting, the issue goes deeper than next year's freshman class of 650 students.

"A lot of students admitted to Lowell, the majority of them are White and East-Asian, coming from middle schools with resources geared to getting them into Lowell," said Viviana Ojeda, a Lowell High School senior, who spoke in favor of a lottery. 

A majority of the board has signaled it wants Lowell admissions permanently re-tooled to admit more Black and Latin-x students.

Several trustees spoke disparagingly of the magnet high school as having a "toxic culture."

"Some students of color could go and choose not to," said Commissioner Alison M. Collins, "and it doesn't make any sense to integrate a school if it's not welcoming, that is backward."

A Black woman who graduated in 2015 echoed that sentiment.

"Throughout all four years I was there, I felt extremely unwelcome from other students and staff and they have a long way to go if they want to make the process equitable," said a graduate named Teri. 

Lowell's defenders say its national reputation for academic excellence will fade if students are admitted without extra effort or achievement.

"Students make the school, schools don't make the students," said a Lowell alumnus named Caldwell.

"What I got when I came to Lowell was a group of highly motivated individuals that were highly competitive."

Several parents were even more blunt.

"Real life doesn't just hand awards to those who just show up, " said Howard Su, a 1998 Lowell graduate with a child enrolled now.

"This suggests Black or Latinx students can't qualify otherwise, and that in itself is degrading and racist." 

Added parent Nils Gilman: "Lowell has provided social mobility for students of color because of excellence, but a lottery provides no standards whatsoever, and destroys that excellence."

Many speakers argued that Lowell should at least require an essay, instead of a purely random selection among students who apply.

In the end, the board unanimously approved a lottery for next year, but tabled action of what should happen after that.

Their comments made clear though, the status quo is not likely to survive.

Next up: a resolution forming a task force that will recommend lasting admission reforms aimed at integration.