Lowell High School Admissions Fight Is About To Heat Up Under New SF School Board

The council’s decision to move to a lottery system and abandon the competitive process has divided the city over the past year and at least partially inspired the recall. The renewed debate promises to raise tough questions about equity, racism and achievement in the city’s public schools.

The current lottery-based admissions process, adopted as a temporary solution after a judge overturned the board’s decision to a permanent lottery system, has addressed concerns about lack of grades and test scores amid the pandemic. The new board will need to decide on a permanent process moving forward.

In recent years, opponents of the college admissions policy have argued that it is elitist and racist against black and brown students, who were underrepresented in the school relative to their presence in the district. Proponents said the move to a lottery would hurt Asian American students, who are overrepresented at Lowell, and punish high-achieving students.

The debate is also mired in questions about the legality of college admissions in California given that a 1990s law generally prohibits it despite Lowell’s long history of enrolling students based on grades and test scores.

The district could decide to go back to merit-based admissions, stick with the lottery, or find a compromise that respects state law while using some sort of merit system that still ensures greater diversity. . This could require him to seek a waiver from the state.

Since switching to a lottery for admission this school year, Lowell has seen its enrollment become more diverse, with more black and Hispanic students in the ninth-grade class than at any time in at least 25 years.

The high school is the largest in the district, with nearly 2,800 students.

The board’s 5-to-2 vote in January 2021 to permanently drop the academic merit criteria and move to a lottery system was overturned by the court due to procedural violations. It was a rushed, week-long debate, thrown at families as students remained in remote learning, with little time for public scrutiny.

District officials have acknowledged that Lowell’s admissions process has been botched during the pandemic, with little public participation and violations of open meeting laws, and are set to start again.

“I know admissions to Lowell High is a big issue,” said school board vice president Jenny Lam, who will move up in rank when recalled president Gabriela López is removed from office on March 11. that we are conducting a thorough, open and inclusive process.

It is unclear what impact three new council members will have on the outcome of this process, or whether Mayor London Breed is considering the candidates’ positions on Lowell in his selection process.

Outgoing members Collins and López led the process of converting Lowell’s admissions to a lottery process, largely to address the disproportionately low number of black and brown students in the school. The third recalled board member, Faauuga Moliga, who resigned after the election, also backed him, as did current board members Matt Alexander and Mark Sanchez. Lam and board member Kevine Boggess opposed the decision.

The push to change the admissions system was also linked to accusations and incidents of racism at school, including anti-black, pornographic and anti-Semitic images posted in an online classroom.

Yet many Lowell parents, students and alumni say it’s anything but a simple problem.

For decades, Lowell has been considered one of the nation’s top public high schools with a long history of bright and illustrious alumni, including United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, former Gov. of California Pat Brown, the late private equity financier Warren Hellman, Giants CEO Larry Baer, ​​and actress Carol Channing.

“Changing school admissions to a lottery, with little input from the community, was a slap in the face for kids who had worked hard in middle school to get into Lowell,” said high school social studies teacher Adam Michels. school, adding that many of those students are Asian Americans. “If a student doesn’t want to challenge themselves, they probably won’t apply to Lowell. Even my own son decided to go to Lincoln, because he says Lowell is full of try-hards.

The current freshman class was the first admitted by lottery in decades, if not more than a century.

Monique Pflager, whose daughter is in the second year at school, worries some first-year students say they don’t feel worthy, being labeled “lottery kids who shouldn’t be there”.

Pflager is undecided about what admissions at Lowell should look like. On the one hand, a lottery makes sense for her, while on the other, some kids excel and want or need that selective environment and competitive culture.

“It’s for the kids,” she says. “It’s not about any of us. It’s about what kids need and want.

It is also a matter of state law.

The state’s education code requires that a high-demand school’s selection policy have an “impartial process that prohibits evaluating whether a student should be enrolled based on academic or athletic performance.”

Special schools or gifted programs are exempt, but Lowell is officially neither. It is a comprehensive secondary school, which has long used academic performance as a gatekeeper. It seems possible that Lowell will become a special or alternative school, with focused or thematic instruction, and seek a waiver from the state regarding admission.

Proponents and critics of the competitive admissions policy generally agree that if a district wanted to start a school today with an admissions process like Lowell’s, it would violate the law. For years, some district officials and community members believed that Lowell was grandfathered and not subject to the 1994 law.

Carol Kocivar worked on Lowell’s admissions committee in the late 1990s. Lowell “was recognized as a school that used merit-based enrollment because it specialized in taking in high-achieving children” , she said.

At least several current board members believe the competitive admissions process violates the law and the district cannot go back to it.

The unanswered question is whether a merit-based system could be legal – perhaps a mix of lottery and academics. A few California public schools already do this.

Whitney High School in Cerritos, Los Angeles County, Southern California, which serves students in grades 7 through 12, for example, takes the top 20 percent of students from every middle school in the district. based on standardized test scores in math, language and writing. For entry into the seventh year, the school admits the best two to three students from each elementary school on the basis of the same criteria.

Oxford Academy of Anaheim accepts the top 25 students from each geographic area of ​​the district based on grades, essay questions, and teacher recommendations.

It is unclear whether these admissions policies, adopted after the law was passed, would comply with the law. None, including Lowell’s, appears to have been challenged in state court.

The expedited process in January 2021 to change Lowell’s policy did not consider whether there were options that would increase diversity while incorporating academic performance.

“We haven’t really talked about alternative policies,” said Terence Abad, executive director of the Lowell Alumni Association. “Now that the recall has taken place, we would really like to see this process speed up quickly.”

Abad acknowledged that the old system, which reserved 30% of places at Lowell for students facing difficulties or other special circumstances, has not resulted in the diversity that many hoped to see. The district also offered admission to Lowell to those attending Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, hoping the golden ticket would attract more students to the under-enrolled middle school.

Moreover, it was becoming more and more difficult to be part of the 70% admitted solely on grades and test results. Anything less than a 4.0 in eighth grade would be enough to eliminate a student, he said.

“Now it doesn’t feel so good to me,” he said. “Are you telling me that kids with 80th percentile on tests and one or two Bs in eighth grade can’t do well at Lowell?”

Abad said he thinks a new way forward could come out of the public process — perhaps a minimum threshold for grades and test scores, with a lottery process for anyone who meets or exceeds it.

“I also believe that there is a first fundamental problem: do we even want this type of school in our district?” He asked. “Is there any value in that? »

Board member Matt Alexander wants this all re-addressed.

“It is clear that the process last year was not adequate. I take responsibility for my role in this,” he said. “I think we should have this conversation.”

While Alexander said he thinks Lowell can be an academically rigorous school with lottery admissions, he wants to know what other options would be legal.

“I don’t want to dazzle people and tell them we can do whatever we want,” he said. “I want to have an authentic process and we need to know the legal realities.”

This could include seeking advice from the state Department of Education or Attorney General’s office, in addition to other community or legal organizations.

“Step one: let’s figure out what’s legal and what’s not, then have an ethical, strategic and political debate,” Alexander said. ” It’s going to be hard. On all these questions, it is difficult.

“No matter the outcome, there needs to be an open discussion.”

Jill Tucker is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jilltucker

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