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Lowell High School’s merit-based admissions policy is not the district’s real inequity

Illustration by Mia Carson

Patrick Wolff is the executive director of Families for San Francisco and a chess grandmaster and a parent of two children who attended SF public schools.

The merit admissions system at Lowell High School—San Francisco’s largest public high school, educating one-sixth of all SFUSD high school students—is a point of pride as well as a source of pain. Pride from the high-quality education Lowell offers, and the reputation it earns as a result. Pain because Lowell’s success highlights the failure of too many of SFUSD’s other schools to provide a similarly high-quality education.

The focal point for these feelings is Lowell’s merit-based admissions system. That system, which was the subject of much drama over the last two years, is once again up for deliberation at the Board of Education. They are being asked to consider extending the lottery for one more year and putting in place a process to review the long-term policy for admissions at Lowell. The review is reasonable if done well; the extension is unwarranted and should be rejected. 

Students walk the Lowell High School campus on May 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Lowell High School admissions process that was in place before the pandemic consisted of three pathways, or “bands,” through which students could enter. Roughly 70% of available spots each year were allocated based purely on grades and test scores, 15% were allocated based on the judgment of middle school staff, and 15% were set aside for underrepresented schools. 

The goal of this complex design was to preserve Lowell’s high academic standards while helping historically underrepresented Black and Latinx students gain admission. But in spite of these efforts, many people have been dissatisfied with the low levels of Black and Latinx students at Lowell—even though many other SFUSD high schools are substantially less racially diverse—and have called for a reexamination of Lowell’s admissions system as a result. 

It is right to be concerned about the low levels of Black and Latinx students at Lowell, but it is wrong to blame Lowell’s merit-based admission system. SFUSD’s equity shortfall is not that too few students are provided the opportunity to attend Lowell; it is that too many students, especially those who are Black or Latinx, are not well enough educated to reach their full potential, whether at Lowell or elsewhere.

The performance of the first lottery-admitted freshman class to Lowell shows the result of admitting students with an inadequate K-8 education into SFUSD’s most academically rigorous high school. The rate of Ds and Fs rose sharply this year, with Black and Latinx students substantially overrepresented among those struggling. 

Now Superintendent Vincent Matthews, in the last month of his tenure, has put a motion to the Board of Education to make the Lowell admissions system a lottery for one additional year, claiming it will ease the burden on SFUSD to do so. But the staff has plenty of time to revert back to a system it has administered for years, and a large majority of San Francisco residents want Lowell to retain some form of merit-based admissions. Most importantly, now that we know how much some of the first lottery class has struggled at Lowell, it would be irresponsible to repeat the lottery for a second year without pausing to understand the full consequences of the first lottery year.

Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews at district headquarters in San Francisco, California on Thursday, May 12, 2022. | Don Feria for The Standard

Matthews also put a second motion to the board to “Engage Stakeholders in the Lowell Admissions Policy and High School Admissions Criteria” in order to fulfill SFUSD’s equity mission that “every student has access to high-quality teaching and learning.” While this second motion is well-motivated, its singular focus on high school admissions is misguided. There is much that needs fixing in the lower grades: SFUSD’s third-grade reading levels rank near the bottom of California school districts, and SFUSD’s academic achievement levels in both ELA and math for Black and Latinx students also rank near the bottom in California. 

A thoughtful Board of Education would address the issues raised by Lowell constructively. It would revisit the admissions system by soliciting expert analysis and comprehensive community input. It would recognize and address the fact that the reason many families care so deeply about getting into Lowell is their dissatisfaction with many of SFUSD’s other high schools. Most of all, it would make its highest priority to improve education outcomes in SFUSD’s K-8 schools—especially for Black and Latinx families—so that all students reach their fullest potential, and all demographic groups of students are fully represented at SFUSD’s most academically rigorous high school. 

The Board of Education in place before the February 2022 recall was not thoughtful. They spent their time on performative equity stunts like trying to destroy historic murals and renaming schools on the basis of careless Wikipedia searches. The reason San Francisco recalled half of the previous Board of Education was because they were so disgusted by its lack of focus on their singular job of educating students. 

The new Board of Education should now seize this opportunity to show San Francisco how a responsible school board governs. 

First, the board should refuse the request by Superintendent Matthews to extend the lottery admissions system to Lowell for one more year. The merit-based admissions system previously in place was the result of thoughtful deliberation, while the process that replaced it with a lottery was illegitimate. Any changes must start from the system previously in place.

Then, the board should appropriately revise the request by Superintendent Matthews about engaging stakeholders in a discussion about high school admissions. Whatever happens to the admissions criteria at Lowell and other high schools, the far more important issue is how SFUSD can raise the quality of schools at all grade levels. The way to make social justice a reality at SFUSD is to provide every single student an excellent education.

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