A virtual school board committee meeting erupted into chaos Tuesday evening with passionate — and arguably racist — public comments reacting to a recent announcement about a proposed one-year shift away from merit-based admissions at SF's elite Lowell High School.

Parents, prospective students, and some faculty members are angry over a proposal by the school board to enact a lottery-based admissions process for Lowell High for the next academic year, due to the fact that eighth graders now applying do not have standardized test scores or complete grade records from the spring semester due to the pandemic. (SF schools shifted to pass/fail grades in recognition of the difficulties of at-home learning.) Most other San Francisco high schools operate with lottery-based admissions, but Lowell — SF's oldest and most prestigious public high school — has long used a merit-based system with only a few spots reserved for kids from underrepresented middle schools.

The student body at Lowell is around 2,800 students, with more than half of them Asian American, and the remainder predominantly white — about 30 percent, with just over 10 percent Latinx, and less than 2 percent African American students, as Hoodline reports.

The SF Board of Education announced Friday that they intend to use the lottery-based system that places students at other SF schools to fill next year's freshman class, due to the lack of test scores and grades ahead of a winter deadline for placement offerings. As with other schools, priority would be given to siblings of current Lowell students, and kids from Willie Brown Jr. Middle School in the Bayview.

That news attracted a lot of objections from parents and prospective students who took part in last night's virtual meeting, as the Chronicle reports. Some suggested using just one semester's worth of grades along with those from this fall's distance learning classes. Others were a bit more aggressive in their commentary — prompting one board member, in a hot-mic moment, to say to someone off-camera, "I’m listening to a bunch of racists."

A senior at Lowell, Shavonne Hines-Foster, who serves as a student board member, said during the meeting, "You all need to stop protecting the system and start protecting the students." Another Lowell senior, Student Body President Jessi Yu, said during the meeting that the lottery proposal "is a huge steppingstone for achieving the equity that Lowell and SFUSD have been looking for."

It seems that board members have been pushing to get Lowell onto the lottery-based system for good, or something more like it, with a view toward a more equitable system. But some residents and faculty members fear this will change the character of the school, which is considered one the most academically rigorous and respected in the country.

The fight has echoes in one that's been going on for several years in New York City, where there's been a movement to recognize and fix the systemic racism that has been built into the meritocratic system that controls admission to the city's best public schools. As the New York Times reported last year, only seven Black students were admitted to Stuyvesant High School, the city's most elite school, out of a total of 895 spot — a fact that activists and students alike say is indicative of a public school system that has long underserved students of color.

Mayor Bill de Blasio had proposed scrapping the entrance exam used for admission to Stuyvesant and the city's other merit-based schools, but that proved so divisive that state legislators got involved and no decision has yet been made on improving equity at the city's schools.

Stuyvesant was made up of 74-percent Asian American students last year, and Asian American parents have argued that doing away with the entrance exam would unfairly discriminate against these students, who mostly come from low-income families

A faculty member at Lowell High School, Adam Michels, wrote a letter to the editor of the Chronicle that doesn't appear online suggesting that a lottery would have the "unintended effect" of "get[ing] more Asian and white kids with lower academic abilities." And SF parent Nilesh Shah said during last night's meeting, per the Chronicle, that the meritocratic admissions process is "what makes Lowell what it is, the students that attend it."

The vociferous public-comment period was limited to an hour, with many alumni and parents trying to shout their way in, and some not getting a chance to speak.

Following the comment period, SF school board member Rachel Norton reportedly said, per the Chronicle, "This was not a good day for San Francisco. What I’ve heard tonight from people who claim to support our system and claim to support our students is disgusting. I’m really overcome by the ugliness."

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