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Prominent San Francisco high school could drop academic achievement for admission

Nationally acclaimed Lowell HS has long been a lightning rod for issues of race in education.
Lowell High School in San Francisco.
Lowell High School in San Francisco.Google maps

The San Francisco school board might junk grade and testing requirements for its nationally acclaimed Lowell High School, which has long been a lightning rod for issues of race in education.

The school is the San Francisco Unified School District's only 9-12 campus that uses a formula of grades and standardized test scores for admission of most students — but that might change based on a resolution presented by board members on Tuesday.

The proposal calls for a random lottery for admission to Lowell, which is majority Asian American, to replace the current grade-and-test system, which allegedly "excludes students of color" and "perpetuates the opportunity gap."

Of Lowell's 2,871 students, 18.1 percent are white, 11.5 percent Hispanic, 1.8 percent Black and 50.6 percent Asian, largely Chinese, according to the most recent state education data. That compares to the district's 52,778 total enrollment of 14.9 percent white, 28.2 percent Hispanic, 6.4 percent Black and 33.4 percent Asian.

Lowell's admission process has "created a school that does not reflect the diversity of SFUSD students and perpetuates segregation and exclusion," the resolution states.

After hearing public testimony on the resolution Tuesday, the school board could vote on it on Feb. 9.

"I think it's a terrible idea," said Julian Chan, a real estate developer and 2010 Lowell grad. "What they are doing would mean there would be no more Lowell High School, actually. It'd just be another San Francisco public school, and we all know Lowell is not just another San Francisco public school."

Lowell already went to a random lottery for 2021-22 admission in what had been billed as a temporary measure, citing Covid-19 restrictions that prevented all the necessary student data to be collected.

Mary Joyce, a 1983 Lowell grad, fears that many of San Francisco's brightest teenagers could be shut out of going to the school for no better reason than luck of the draw.

"It's a special place and an amazing resource," Joyce, a biopharmaceutical data manager, said of her alma mater. "If you turn it into a gambling proposition, then you're sending the message that academics don't matter."

Dropping academic requirements for a school — which boasts alumni such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer, the late Broadway great Carol Channing and three Nobel Prize laureates — is a hot-button topic among Lowell grads.

"I'm confident to say a majority of Lowell graduates would like to see academics (grade and test scores) still have at least some part (in admissions), to show some kind of academic track record," said Terence Abad, executive director of the Lowell Alumni Association.

Lowell critics have said the school has long struggled to embrace minority students who are not Asian.

Last month, someone posted "racist, anti-Semitic and pornographic images and speech" on an internal virtual bulletin board, according to the district.

There was a student walkout in 2016, when, during Black History Month, someone allegedly posted a photo with prominent African Americans in a library window with the racist message: "HAPPY BLACK HISTORY MONTH #GANG."

Abad agreed that there has to be more non-Asian minority students at Lowell.

"I definitely think there's a problem with the underenrollment of Black and Latino kids at Lowell and none of us have worked on this issue enough," said Abad, an attorney and 1976 Lowell grad.

The school's competitive admissions process and college-level curriculum might not even be the best experience for those fortunate enough to get into Lowell, according to a documentary picking up buzz at the Sundance Film Festival.

The movie "Try Harder" profiles the grinding, high-stress, often fun-deprived lives of the documentary's young stars.