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As Lowell grapples with admission policy, other cities offer lessons on how to balance merit and diversity

The San Francisco Unified School District abolished academic-based admissions to Lowell High School in favor of a lottery system. | David Topete

As San Francisco wrestles with how Lowell High School admits students—a controversy that’s already claimed three commissioners in a recall—officials can find guidance from cities ensnared in similar battles.

Lowell has polarized San Francisco in a winner-take-all fight to the finish, pitting merit-based admissions against a lottery to make the elite school more diverse. Voters overwhelmingly disapprove of a lottery for the academically elite school, according to The Standard Voter Poll released Wednesday, but Lowell remains a racially charged issue in many quarters. 

Cities like Alexandria, Virginia, and Chicago have fought similar battles, producing middle-ground compromises that so far have eluded San Francisco. They have developed admissions policies for elite high schools that select top-performing scholars and bring in more students of color using a method called “local norms.

Under a local norms policy at Lowell, students would no longer compete with each other citywide for the vast majority—70%—of seats. That approach, based on test scores and grades, has led to the domination of white and Asian students. Instead, students would compete against others within their own San Francisco middle school—thus the term “local norms”—for a significant percentage of guaranteed seats at Lowell.

By tapping all middle schools, including those with a higher percentage of Black and Latino students, Lowell could up its percentage of students of color, showing that academic competition and diversity don’t have to be at loggerheads, said Scott Peters, a professor of education at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who advises districts on improving admissions systems.

“San Francisco should absolutely look at cities like Alexandria for a middle-ground approach,” he said. “They are identifying students who have risen to the top within lower income areas, and in doing that, they are getting a more diverse student body in their selective programs.”

A New Norm

Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria shifted to a local norms model after police murdered George Floyd in 2020, which galvanized a nationwide push for racial justice and more diversity.

After studying practices at other magnet schools, the school board replaced Thomas Jefferson’s difficult admissions test with a scheme that gives seats to the top 1.5% of applicants from every middle school with a GPA of at least 3.5 after taking rigorous classes.

In the first class admitted under the new method last fall, the percentage of accepted Black students jumped to 7% from 1%, and Latinos to 11% from 3%. Asians dropped to 54% from 73%.

The Coalition for TJ, a group of mostly Asian-American parents, vociferously objected to the changed policy as discriminatory. But in April the U.S. Supreme Court let it stand

Chicago was one of the first cities to adopt a local norm model a decade ago and now wants to tweak it to further boost diversity. Currently, the top academic middle schoolers citywide claim 30% of the seats in Chicago’s 11 selective high schools. The rest are equally divided among the best students within four tiers that separate Chicago residents by socioeconomic factors like family income and home ownership. This gives kids from poorer families a better shot at an elite education. 

Chicago’s new public schools head Pedro Martinez proposes no longer giving the top 30% of citywide performers—who tend to be from upper income families—a golden ticket. Instead, those seats would be distributed among the four tiers, increasing opportunities for kids from poorer neighborhoods. 

“I believe academic ability is distributed equally across our city and that access to our selective enrollment schools should be more equitable,” Martinez said while announcing the plan in March.

Other cities offer more options for San Francisco. In October, Philadelphia debuted an approach in which selective high schools set their own academic requirements, and students that meet them enter a lottery, with preference for kids from ZIP codes that have been underrepresented.

New York City schools Chancellor David Banks wants to increase the number of selective schools as well as change the admissions process—an approach that Peters says San Francisco should also examine to deal with a scarcity of seats.  

Up for Debate

San Francisco has yet to have a thorough public debate on changes to Lowell. 

Early last year, the Board of Education jammed through a change to a new lottery system that a court rejected for failing to adequately notify the public, giving commissioners the option to reconsider a permanent shift to a lottery that was used last year.

The shenanigans spurred frustrated voters to recall three commissioners in February who backed the method. In coming months, the new board is expected to reopen the issue of Lowell admissions for the 2023-24 school year. 

A potential legal battle hovers over the outcome.

The San Francisco Unified School District maintains that whatever policy comes next must align with state law, which spokesperson Laura Dudnick says explicitly prohibits public schools from making enrollment decisions based on academic performance.

But Kate Lazarus, president of the Lowell Alumni Association, has a different read of the 1990s law, which was meant to increase public school choice. She says it had nothing to do with selective admissions schools like Lowell, which existed for decades before the law was passed.

Lazarus is pushing to keep selective admissions because she says it brings together highly motivated students who thrive off each other. But the association president said she is willing to consider changes to the old merit-based model, which awarded only 15% of seats to Black and Latino freshman in 2020. She said a policy that reserves more seats at Lowell for top performers at every middle school, along with slots for the highest fliers citywide, could be a solution.

“It’s worth having a really thorough process with community input and education experts to figure out what the best policy looks like,” she said. “Schools all over the country are grappling with the same issue of balancing selective admissions and diversity, but we haven’t done that yet.”

Virginia Marshall, education chair of the San Francisco NAACP branch, opposes a restoration of Lowell’s test-and-grades-based admissions. She said it doesn’t account for the educational disadvantages of kids who grow up in public housing projects and attend underfunded elementary and middle schools, putting Lowell out of reach for most of them.

But Marshall said the lottery used in the fall isn’t the only alternative and that a policy that ensures the same number of seats at Lowell from every middle school is an option her community would consider.

The number of Black students increased at Lowell under the lottery used in 2021 and many are now thriving. Marshall said 53 Black students from all grades—a sizable percentage of the total—made the honor roll at the end of 2021.

“This past semester has shown us that the African American kids are smart and are capable of doing the work that the Asian students do if given the chance,” she said.

The Board of Education hasn’t said when it plans to take up the issue of Lowell admissions later this year. Several commissioners, including President Jenny Lam, didn’t respond to requests for comment about Lowell, which remains the third rail of local politics.