Elitist Bubble Popped? San Franciscans Express Concerns About Lowell High School’s Admissions Change

Max Miller, Staff Writer

Lowell High School has held the reputation of being the most elite, competitive public high school in San Francisco for decades. Parents and students alike view Lowell as an academic haven for who they believe are the most intelligent students in a city where most public schools are left underfunded, overpopulated, and under-resourced. Not unlike other so-called educational havens, Latino and African American students are severely underrepresented at Lowell. According to Niche, a website that specializes in ranking schools throughout the United States, of the 2,774 students at Lowell, 59% are Asian, 18% are white, 10% are Hispanic, and just 42 are Black (1.5%). In contrast, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is 38% Asian, 14% white, 27% Hispanic, and 7% African American. Even more disturbing, Lowell’s school environment has been described as “toxic” and “racist” by members of these underrepresented groups. After years of disregarding calls for increased equity and diversity within the Lowell community, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced conversations — and thus controversy — about abolishing Lowell’s merit-based admissions process. There are a number of different sides to this story and many conflicting opinions.
Lowell’s normal admissions process admits students in three Bands, or groups. The school reserves 70% of spots for those in Band One and 15% for those in Bands Two and Three. Only the highest performing students – based on standardized test results and GPAs – are admitted into Lowell through Band One. Band Two consists of those with slightly lower academic performances but takes into account hardships (socioeconomic, familial, etc.) that students have faced. Band Three consists of students who come from public or private schools that are underrepresented at Lowell. Public middle schools in lower-income communities are left underfunded, causing students at those schools to obtain a lower quality of education than they would anywhere else. Because of this, Lowell lacks both socioeconomic and racial diversity.
In the spring semester of 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, SFUSD switched to a pass-fail grading system, and standardized tests were not administered. This significantly disrupted the Band system, as a whole semester of data was left out of students’ applications. In October, the SFUSD board of education voted to change the Lowell admissions system from merit-based to lottery. In order to ensure diversity in Lowell’s class of 2025, priority for admittance will be given to lower-income students as well as those from the most African American and Latino-dominated public middle school in San Francisco: Willie Brown. While this change was understandable to most as a result of the pandemic, on Feb 9th, the SanFrancisco School Board voted 5-2 to permanently implement the lottery as the sole admissions system for Lowell. The rationale behind the permanent change was that Lowell’s merit-based admissions process is inherently racist as well as illegal under California state law. From late January to the day of the vote, controversy and chaos ensued. I talked to a number of people: eighth-graders, parents, and current Lowell students. Each had equally valid – but extremely different – points of view. As this is a contested topic, many of the people I interviewed wished to remain anonymous.
For Colin Morshead, an eighth-grader at Herbert Hoover Middle School, Lowell’s shift to a lottery system is questionable, to say the least. Morshead, who has the grades to be admitted to Lowell during Band One, said he liked Lowell because “you don’t have to pay to go to an amazing school and that would have been a good choice for a lot of less wealthy parents who have smart kids.” While Lowell was not his first choice, he said, “I would be very unhappy with the lottery system if Lowell was really my first choice.” Morshead felt that the admissions system change was robbing the most deserving students from the highest quality high school in San Francisco. He said, “I fear that Lowell will lose a lot of its prestige if the lottery system is put in.” This loss in prestige is not inherently bad, as the high-level teachers and diverse range of classes will not go away. Morshead, however, said, “The teachers at Lowell wanna teach there because they’re with kids who really wanna be there.” He felt that the level of teaching would go down because the students admitted through the lottery system would be less willing or able to do the work.
Morsheads beliefs are not unfounded. According to Anna, an anonymous Lowell Junior, a white teacher at Lowell started a petition to suspend the School Boards’ vote, backed by the claim that the school board was “exaggerating instances of racism at Lowell.” The blatant ignorance that was expressed by this teacher, especially in light of acts of racism in virtual class demonstrates how desperate some of the Lowell faculty are in working to preserve Lowell’s elitist environment. Morshead was not the only person who expressed negative feelings about the change.
For parents who are unable to afford elite private schools such as Urban, Lowell feels like the only viable path to success. Lowell’s academic rigor, competitivity, and well-versed college counseling program all increase the school’s desirability. Anna said that her mother (who also attended Lowell) feels that it prepared her well for college and her life after that much better than her peers who attended other public high schools. Anna’s mom is a first-generation Asian immigrant, and she was extremely grateful for the opportunities Lowell gave her. Anna says her mom wants her to have the same opportunities as she did, and believes that by changing the admissions system, Lowell is robbing hard-working, smart students like her of the opportunity to reach their full potential in this world. She holds firmly onto the belief that “anyone can get into Lowell if they work hard enough.” There is a large generational divide, however, in understanding how systemic racism – which disproportionately affects Black people compared to other minorities – debunks certain aspects of Anna’s mom’s beliefs.
As a politically involved student living during this racially charged time, Anna’s understanding of systemic racism is more extensive than that of most American adults. She said, “systemic racism has always existed, but I think older generations, especially Asian immigrants, overlook that, just because they ‘made it’ because they didn’t face the same barriers that Black people uniquely face.” Anna has a lens into the school’s environment that her mother does not. Not only does she see the systemic racism perpetuated by Lowell’s admissions process, but she also feels that the school creates a toxic environment for all of its students. She said that the school “definitely fosters competition, and sets students up to compare themselves to each other.” Her experience at Lowell has been slightly toxic as a result of this, but she said that the toxicity that she faced was not nearly as isolating or intense as that of her Black friends. She said, “Black students do face a lot of microaggressions. And just like straight-up racism… I think a lot of people have this belief that Black students don’t work hard. And that if they get into Lowell, it’s because they got in during Band Two or Band Three.” One of her friends left Lowell because of the racism that she faced.
This extremely competitive environment, in my opinion, is a huge contributor to the ongoing racist environment at Lowell. In a culture where competitiveness is the norm, racism has become a tactic for exerting dominance over one’s peers. These acts of racism and elitism at Lowell have been going on for years. Until recently, however, the Black voices that have spoken out against this racial violence have been silenced. Systemic racism keeps Black students out of Lowell, and the few that are let in are isolated by the competitive and racist environment within Lowell. Some parents of Black students don’t even bother considering Lowell as an option because of its harsh environment.
Jessica, an anonymous African American mother of four, points to the lack of diversity at Lowell, “[as a result of] a problem within Lowell, one that can only be quelled with a major culture shift.” Jessica has sent all of her kids to public schools through at least elementary school. Not unlike Anna’s mom, one of Jessica’s strongest values is giving her children access to high-quality education. When her daughter applied to Lowell in 2018, however, Jessica said she “was extremely turned off by Lowell’s ideology that the students who were admitted there were superior in intelligence to those everywhere else.” Jessica felt that this superiority complex – especially within a school that lacks diversity – stems from white supremacy and anti-Black violence. She wished that Lowell was not so elitist, and said she “would have been much more drawn to it if it preached inclusivity, as students learn just as much from being exposed to a diverse environment as they do from reading a book.” To reiterate this point, she said, “intelligence should not be based on the GPAs of 12 year-olds from all different backgrounds.” When her daughter was admitted to Lowell in spring 2018 Jessica made the decision to turn the offer down in fear of how the racist and competitive environment would affect the self-esteem and mental health of her daughter. In this case, Lowell’s elitism kept a Black student from even wanting to attend the school.
While Jessica’s critiques of Lowell were based on its ideology more than its admissions process, she also brought an interesting perspective for the argument in support of switching to a lottery system. “Switching to a lottery system would be extremely beneficial in breaking the elitist, exclusive bubble that Lowell is right now,” she said. She hoped that in changing the admissions process, people like her would be more willing to send their kids to Lowell. Since Jessica’s experiences with Lowell in 2018, however, and especially since the murder of George Floyd, the SFUSD school board has been taking steps towards implementing anti-racism into the curriculums of high schools throughout San Francisco, including Lowell. There is some debate, however, over whether or not these steps have been effective.
Anna feels that Lowell’s efforts towards anti-racism have been extremely performative. While Lowell has prided themselves on their new anti-racism courses, the anonymous student said that “they’re, like, 10 minutes, you watch a video, and you fill out a Google form.” It feels as if Lowell is doing the bare minimum, which is upsetting to her, especially in light of recent acts of racism during virtual class. The ignorance and racism that has been and continues to be expressed by students within the Lowell community directly contradict logic or facts.
In light of these ongoing acts of racism at Lowell, as well as the half-hearted attempts to quell this toxic environment, many students have decided to support the SFUSD school board in changing Lowell to a lottery system. Viviana Ojeda, a senior at Lowell who got into Lowell through Band Three said, “a merit-based admissions policy upholds the effects of systemic racism.” Ojeda is not just in favor of Lowell’s switch to a lottery system because of the merit-based system’s inherent racism, she also said that “Lowell’s merit-based admissions policy is illegal under California state law.” Ojeda’s words are far from unfounded. California’s education code states that admissions policies for high-demand schools must be an “unbiased process that prohibits an evaluation of whether a pupil should be enrolled based upon his or her academic or athletic performance.” The legal aspect of Lowell’s admissions process muddles the water even further. If challenged on their system in court, Lowell would likely lose. Odeja expressed frustration that this illegal, racist system has dominated the minds of middle schoolers and their parents for decades. “Students and families should not be faced with this immense pressure and sense of competition to send their kids to a good high school,” she said.
At public middle schools in San Francisco, it often comes down to luck on whether or not a student gets a teacher that is able to provide them with a quality education. One anonymous eighth-grader said that “the other two science classes were six units ahead of us.” The disparities in the quality of education among students have made it nearly impossible for many students to get into Lowell. Furthermore, a large number of parents hold beliefs that Lowell is the only route to success for their children, as many other public high schools are viewed as inadequate. This instills seeds of anxiety in many middle schoolers, and when students find themselves unprepared for the trials that the Lowell merit-based admissions process throws at them, feelings of worthlessness and anger ensue.
The racial disparities that are present at Lowell speak to a larger problem within the SFUSD school system. Too many public middle schools in San Francisco do not have the resources to adequately prepare their students for standardized tests. The switch to a lottery system is a step in the right direction toward fostering equity within the SFUSD school system. Still, this change is not enough. Schools throughout the SFUSD are underfunded, overpopulated, and under-resourced. Funding for public high schools should not be eaten up by one elite high school. All students should have access to the high-quality education that Lowell presents. In order to combat disparities between public middle schools, Anna said that many of her peers feel that “SFUSD needs to find a way to fund all middle schools so that any middle schooler, regardless of school, can have the test scores to get into Lowell.”