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Why is San Francisco De-Magnetizing Its Public School Jewel?

Emil Photo Again Edited 61b7dabb61239

Admissions officers in higher ed know Lowell High School in California  as one of the best public high schools in America, feeding the best colleges, public and private,  Ivy, non-Ivy, UC, non-UC.  Not any more.

For decades, the school had been San Francisco’s all-academic high school, with students from all over the city who needed the grades and the test scores to get in.  Increasingly however, merit requirements created concerning racial gaps.  Blacks were 6 percent of the students in the city, but only 2 percent of Lowell. Hispanics were 28 percent of the students in the city, and just 12 percent at Lowell.

Instead of trying to understand the reasons for the disparities, the San Francisco Unified School District’s Board of Education took action last week, and decided to go to lottery admissions for the fall.

Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

Done? Not by a longshot.

Instead of addressing the gaps from an educational standpoint, it leaves it all up to chance. A lottery?  How is that better?

A kid could enter the lottery and still miss out. Maybe that’s no problem if the student wouldn’t have qualified on test scores.

But what of the smart kid who would have gotten in because he qualified on merit? What if he/she doesn’t get in? There’s your tragedy.

The board ignores the new tragedies as it rushed to diversity fairness.

The board should have taken its time before it destroyed a high school considered one of the jewels in public education.

I speak as a San Francisco native son, born to older immigrants from the Philippines who had fewer opportunities in life than I did as a teenager with a paper route.  I grew up on the free lunch program. Went to Andrew Jackson, Edison (pre-Charter), and Everett Middle School (then the unofficial magnet for kids of the Fillmore, Potrero Hill, SOMA, and the Mission). As a good student and person of color, I was bullied at my neighborhood school, even in typing class. Still got Straight As, and made it to Lowell, where I demanded Honors classes. By senior year, I was accepted into Harvard.

I’m no elitist. I’m a believer in the comprehensive public school experience. I survived it.

In fact, I put Lowell above my Harvard experience.  I’m still in touch with my 96-year old English teacher, Flossie Lewis, who taught me Beowulf.

That’s how important it is to keep Lowell as is— the best you can get in public education.

So how do we solve the inequities in admission? We need more thoughtful solutions that may have to go beyond education and address segregated housing, income inequality, employment, and family needs. The board takes a shortcut when it resorts to the quick fix of demographics.

SFUSD needs to ask better questions that get to the heart of the inequitable numbers it’s seeing. Are kids in Black and Hispanic homes and communities getting what they need K-8?

And then there is the “elephant in the room.” No one mentions what could be the real problem:  Lowell is 51 percent Asian vs. 33 percent Asian enrollment in the district. I believe if pre-dominantly white schools are a problem, so are predominantly Asian ones.

A lottery may make Asian numbers drop, and then expect certain Asians groups to seek legal action. They are the same ones who have voted to continue the ban on affirmative action in the state,  the same ones who have been used as white proxies to fight wholistic approaches to admissions at Harvard and Yale.

If the Board wants to fight racism and truly believes that “all SFUSD high schools are academic schools,” then simply put more resources into all the other high schools. It’s all about resources. That’s why one of the big problems with the former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is all the time she spent more energy diverting funds to private, religious, and charter schools. Just in the CARES ACT alone, private schools got on average $835,000 each, vs. public schools’ $134,500.

Resources are the answer.  Not lowering the bar at Lowell. Resources enable you to raise the bar at the neighborhood schools and make them all shine. As an example, the International Baccalaureate program provides rigorous all-academic programs to tough comprehensive high schools like the Central Valley’s Modesto High and Franklin High in Stockton. They’re like schools within schools. Kids excel in place, if they can. For some,  it’s sink or swim. Most swim. But it works. I know a young Hispanic student who had no intention of going to college. After the IB program, she went from rural Turlock to NYU and is now in a doctoral program at UC Berkeley.

Changing the testing requirements in favor of a more holistic admissions approach may also help.  Stockton’s Little Manila Rising organized Filipino students who claimed the SAT and ACT test should be eliminated at Berkeley due to bias. They demanded access. They succeeded.

These are just a few ideas that could improve racial equity without changing the stellar magnet, Lowell, which must be preserved for the gifted students—of all racial backgrounds.

The elites will always have $50,000 a year to pay for private schools. Families like mine didn’t.

Common folk like me should be able to rely on public education at its best–Lowell High School.

And, of course,  higher ed, should care, because these students are your future.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok.






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