In a striking turnaround, Lowell High School will return to selective admissions in fall 2023, the San Francisco Unified school board decided Wednesday.
In a 4-3 decision marking a post-recall shift, the Board of Education voted against the superintendent’s plan to extend lottery admissions for Lowell while a task force assesses high schools and makes recommendations. The school will go back to using grades and test scores to determine eligibility.
Commissioners unanimously approved a separate proposal for a task force that will examine schools with selective admissions: Lowell and Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.
President Jenny Lam joined commissioners Ann Hsu, Lainie Motamedi and Lisa Weissman-Ward—all four of whom were appointed by Mayor London Breed—in voting against keeping Lowell in lottery admissions.
Vice President Kevine Boggess and Commissioners Mark Sanchez and Matt Alexander voted in favor of extending the lottery.
“I believe in an academic magnet school,” said Lam, who cast the swing vote. “I support, at this time, criteria-based admissions. Lowell as a school is not perfect on its own, and neither is its admissions process. I’m fully committed in ensuring we move forward as a district.”
Protesters both for and against the lottery system rallied outside the district headquarters before the meeting, leading to complaints of shouting over Black leaders.
The decision lurches Lowell High back to its controversial admissions policy, which could open it up to a lawsuit. The district has maintained that state law does not allow comprehensive public high schools like Lowell to admit students based on academic performance.
Lowell’s selective admissions policy has been on a roller coaster of uncertainty since October 2020, when it was first—albeit temporarily—undone by pandemic-prompted limitations on the district’s ability to conduct special testing for the school. The move to lottery-based admissions was made permanent in January after demands for cultural change, then temporarily undone by a judge’s decision and then reinstated once more—until now.
The change in status quo fueled the recall of three commissioners who voted for the permanent end of academic-based admissions and were replaced by successors who favored it.
The change back will likely reverse the recent trend of admitting more Black and Latinx students, whose numbers have long been disproportionately low at the selective public high school, contributing to feelings of isolation and inferiority.
Lowell comprises 48.5% Asian students, 17.7% white students, 14.1% Latinx students, 2% Black students, and 5.4% Filipino students, according to district data. Its freshman class admitted through the lottery system is 43.6% Asian, 15.7% white, 21.6% Latinx, 4% Black, and 4.6% Filipino.
Under the lottery, a higher number of low-income and special education students were also admitted.
Reinstating the previous admissions policy will be a demanding logistical task, staff warned. It will take reestablishing procedures with families and many new middle school administrators, which would cost at least $40,000 in overtime work and purchasing tests.
‘We Need to Stop Harming Children’
Wednesday’s vote came after immense pressure from the Lowell Alumni Association, Chinese Parent Advisory Council and recall proponents to restore selective admissions.
Supporters of criteria-based admissions argued Lowell was not at fault for district failures at the elementary and middle school level to prepare students for a rigorous environment, one that better sets up high-achieving students for success.
“San Francisco needs a strong academically focused public high school to support all kids and driven students,” said Shurrin Zeng, CPAC president, adding that continuing lottery admissions would invite litigation. “Destroying Lowell special admissions will deprive families of what they seek.”
Arguments against the lottery system—that it ruins the school’s quality, punishes hard-working students and threatens political and legal repercussions—have smacked critics of the selective policy as anti-Black.
“Merit-based can equal ‘separate but not equal,’” said Linda Martley-Jordan, of the Alliance of Black School Educators, during public comment. “That is the case. No one is trying to dummy down Lowell. What I’m hearing is students … they’re only quality if they’re at Lowell. We need to stop harming children that way.”
Selective admissions will return for the 2023-24 school year and a task force will make recommendations by April 30.