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Lowell principal resigns, blasting school district on his way out

A student walks on Lowell’s campus in 2021. | Camille Cohen

In the latest setback for San Francisco’s beleaguered public school system, Lowell High School Principal Joe Ryan Dominguez announced Wednesday that he plans to resign at the end of the school year, attributing the move to the school district’s failings.

Dominguez, who was promoted from his former role of vice principal only last August, said in an afternoon email to parents:  

“While I deeply appreciate you all for the community and support I have received in the last three years, the decision to leave SFUSD is solely based on my desire to apply my passion for education in a district that values its students and staff through well organized systems, fiscal responsibility and sound instructional practices as the path towards equity.”

Lowell has long been a crown jewel of San Francisco’s school system, with a selective admissions policy, a national reputation for excellence and a loyal cadre of alumni who credit it with changing their lives. But in recent years it also became a symbol of elitism and institutional discrimination, and the school board’s decision last year to abolish selective admissions was among the issues that led to the successful recall of three school board members last month.

Recall organizers targeted the Lowell community and found overwhelming support for their cause, which captured national attention. But even as the long-term admission’s policy remains in legal limbo, the school is facing the same battles over budget cuts and curriculum that are playing out across a district that faces a $125 million deficit and sharp disagreements over equity issues.

Michael Essien, president of the district’s administrator’s union, United Administrators of San Francisco, said Dominguez’s letter captured “the mood and sentiment” of school leaders—many of whom are at their wits end after two years of the pandemic and other bureaucratic blunders.

Though Lowell has a way of hogging the spotlight in news about San Francisco schools, it is not the only high school experiencing a change of leadership in the fall. At the very least, Mission, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, Thurgood and Wallenberg high schools will all have new principals by summer’s end, Essien noted.

Essien said that while people are generally aware of all the issues within the school district, the “people who have to deal with that on the ground and the consequences for that are literally site administrators.”

In a separate email, Bill W. Sanderson, assistant superintendent of SFUSD, acknowledged the resignation without addressing Dominguez’s grievances: “I am deeply grateful for his service as both an assistant principal and principal of the school since the fall of 2019,” Sanderson’s letter read. He added he would meet with stakeholder groups to set up a process to receive input and lay out a timeline to pick a replacement, in accordance with district policy.

Reaction to the news on Twitter ranged from snark to dismay, though few seemed surprised.

Lowell senior Cal Kinoshita said he had mixed feelings about Dominguez’s resignation. 

He wrote in a text message that he didn’t think Dominguez had “done a sufficient job at addressing sexual violence or student advocacy.” Students at Lowell and other high schools in the district have been pushing the district to update the way it handles charges of sexual assault between students

However, the Lowell senior added, he felt Dominguez “seriously addressed racism and actually handed out substantial punishments to repeat offenders of racism and homophobia”—both of which are issues near and dear to Kinoshita and his circle of student organizers.

For some local observers, like the self-identified “San Francisco dad,” @northbeachjohn1, the blame for Dominguez’s resignation lies squarely on the Board of Education and the teachers union:

Dominguez voiced many of his frustrations in a March 7 New Yorker article, lamenting the school district’s lack of a vision to transform the school. In the story, Dominguez said he had met with Gabirela López, the former board president, just once. He also said that the board’s vice president, then Faauuga Moliga, didn’t show up to a scheduled meeting.

When Dominguez stepped up from assistant principal to the top leadership role in August, he struck a glass-half-full tone in an interview with Lowell’s student newspaper. But despite all his optimism, it seemed that Dominguez was being pulled in many directions by multiple stakeholders from the very start. 

“I think that we are at a reckoning between honoring the history that is Lowell and the high bar that we set, and also recognizing that we have systems that need to be challenged, and need to be reworked so that they are meeting the needs of all of our students,” Dominguez said in his interview with The Lowell last summer. “I think that if we do a better job at communicating what our stance is when it comes to racial equity, gender equity, and making sure that people know exactly what we stand for, then there is going to be a lot less guessing, and hoping, and distrust in the administration.”

Dominguez attempted to thread that needle for a time—all while simultaneously navigating a return to in-person learning, a complex contract tracing system, budget cuts and a glitchy new payroll system that resulted in many teachers going without some or all of their pay for multiple pay periods. Taking all that into consideration, Dominguez departure will be understandable to some.

“This is a time for site administrators to be supported around this work,” Essien said “To lose a person like this is significant.”