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Pride and Prejudice: Why Lowell Looms Large in SF’s School Discourse

Written by Ida MojadadPublished Mar. 04, 2022 • 9:00am

In the wake of February’s nationally watched school board recall, many have floated theories as to why San Franciscans voted overwhelmingly to oust all three commissioners on the ballot. But many who were on the ground for the contentious election say the debate surrounding Lowell High School—the city’s most esteemed and controversial educational institution—played an outsized role.

While the seeds of the recall effort were sown by parents frustrated over prolonged distance learning, the campaign began to bloom after a Lowell graduate uncovered outgoing Commissioner Alison Collins’ infamous tweets from 2016. Nearly one year later, precincts in the area surrounding Lowell High School in the southwest sector of the city had higher turnout and the highest percentage of votes to recall Collins in February. 

Why did one school in the sixth-largest school district in California loom so large in the historic recall election?

“It holds a certain kind of status for San Francisco,” said Lauren Chinn, a fifth- generation San Franciscan who attended the school from 2004 to 2007.

Chinn said the Lowell community is deeply invested in the school. Many, she continued, see Lowell as an institution that gives its students a leg up in the world, putting them in a position to have resources to pay attention to policy changes. “If they feel like Lowell is what allowed them to get there, they’re going to have a lot of emotions about it,” she said. “It has an outsize impact.” 

Those powerful emotions were at the heart of the Lowell community’s reaction to the sudden announcement that merit-based admissions would come to an end at the school. Though proponents of the decision said it was a necessary step in addressing stark racial inequities and reports of a toxic culture on campus, others saw it as a direct assault on what is often described as the crown jewel of San Francisco’s public schools—a launching pad that gives working-class families something approaching a private school education.

While the district says academic-based admissions can’t legally return under state law, an upcoming public input process around the school’s future admissions policy is expected to bring a decades-long debate over race and merit back into the public eye. 

‘Cream of the Crop’

Famous graduates of Lowell include Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s recently departed husband Richard Blum, and Daniel Handler (better known as Lemony Snicket). For many in the city, it remains the school to attend. 

“The feeling I got from comrades and my own family was that Lowell was considered the cream of the crop,” said Melanie Turner, a San Francisco native who attended the school from 1999 to 2001. “Everything else was second string. If you can get into Lowell, you’re the king or the queen. This is where you need to be if you want to be considered great.” 

Once instilled, that sense of greatness can follow Lowell alumni for the rest of their lives.

“Sure, some Lowell alums maybe feel a little smug when they see national rankings,” said Terence Abad, a 1976 graduate and executive director of the Lowell Alumni Association. “I think that’s a common feeling for people in high school to feel like their high school is the best. I think a lot of Lowell alums give credit to the education they got at Lowell for their subsequent success.”

For some, the prestige isn’t worth the culture. Chinn was admitted to the school in 2004 as a freshman, but she decided to transfer to Balboa High School for her senior year. She recalled instances like classmates making fun of other schools for not being able to afford nice uniforms, students getting shoved in the crowd to sign up for the most desired teachers, and starting a petition when they could no longer choose their own teachers.

“I realized through other people not at Lowell that I was turning into a person I didn’t want to be,” Chinn said. “I was super arrogant and super snobby.”

According to some Lowell Black Student Union members, the entitlement that Chinn saw in herself can also manifest in a more sinister way: They saw the panic over ending merit-based admissions as a reaction to Black and Latino students dumbing down a predominantly Asian and white school

“If that weren’t a factor, there wouldn’t be this much pushback to opening the door for more students to come in,” said BSU President Gabrielle Grice, a junior at Lowell. “When you’re talking about… this school isn’t going to be the best anymore, you’re inciting racism because you’re saying the students coming in aren’t going to be as smart and [at] ‘the level’ Lowell students typically are.” 

Conversely, Lowell graduate and former Supervisor Malia Cohen, who is Black, stated school admissions should remain based on merit. 

Joanna Lam, a student delegate on the school board and a Lowell junior, frequently talks about issues around the admissions system, mental health and sexual assault related to the school and district. But she has also spoken to the positive impact of attending Lowell and its myriad program offerings, like JROTC.  

“I know for me, Lowell has changed the educational course of my career,” Lam said. “There’s some personal attachment to wanting to keep things the way they were in high school. I think some alumni are particularly tied to Lowell because of that prestige.” 

The Road Ahead

Merit-based admissions have long been a legal conundrum for the district. Lowell students have been admitted based on academics since 1966, before state law barred the practice about 30 years ago. 

Under current California education code, students must be admitted to public high schools with high demand in a “random, unbiased” manner—with exceptions for existing processes for magnet schools or specialized programs. Lowell does not fall under that criteria and is not referred to as a magnet school or as having a specialized program, even in the board policy regarding Lowell admissions.

Sometime this spring, Superintendent Vincent Matthews will bring forward a timeline “for stakeholder engagement” on a new admissions policy for the school year starting in 2023. The final decision will be made by a new school board, with three members appointed by Mayor London Breed stepping in after March 11, prompting worry or glee that Lowell’s former system can be restored. 

The Lowell Alumni Association is vehemently against keeping Lowell in the lottery system. It was the alumni association that sued to rescind the resolution ending merit-based system, arguing that the district had violated state open meeting laws. A judge agreed in November, leading to Lowell’s lottery admissions policy ending for the 2023-24 school year.

While Abad said it’s fair to question the concept of an academic magnet high school in a public school system, he ultimately defended the idea. 

“There’s something to be gained when you bring a critical mass of kids together in one school who have a…drive or ambition for academics,” Abad said. “It can sometimes cause stress and anxiety and other emotional issues but I think, in general, it creates a very positive atmosphere that for some kids can be good.”

Abad said the association is open to discussing a new admissions policy that includes some element of academic achievement or drive with “some kind of metric.” 

SFUSD maintains that, whatever comes next, it must be consistent with state law “which explicitly prohibits public school districts from making enrollment decisions based on the student’s academic performance,” district spokesperson Laura Dudnick said last week.

Current Lowell students Lam, a delegate on the school board, and Grice, Lowell’s BSU president, agree that the rigorous environment isn’t harmed by the school being in a lottery system, which has families rank preferred schools. The lottery, and more students of color as a byproduct, is the only thing that has changed at the school—not the rigor, not the culture, Grice said.

“The people entering Lowell are people who are choosing to go to Lowell,” Lam said. “It’s not like everyone is thrown into the lottery. Educating the public is really important and also doing research on other solutions. Ultimately, it comes down to just talking to people and making sure we’re not rushing the process.”

As for the mania that swirls around Lowell, Grice said, “That’s never going to change.”

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