San Francisco stepped into a larger national debate about merit-based admissions to public schools late last year when a fight erupted over a proposal to temporarily suspend a merit-based policy the city's elite Lowell High School. Now SF has become one of the first cities where a school board has jettisoned the policy altogether, in a stand against racist attitudes.
A fight has been brewing and erupting in various ways in New York City for years over its elite public middle and high schools, where academic merit has been used in admissions for decades along with things like geographic priority. The policy has tended to enforce segregation and the inequities in school systems that the Supreme Court sought to undo nearly 70 years ago. Despite the best efforts of well meaning parents and administrators, critics have called out gross inequities in New York's public schools, and the predominance of white and Asian students in the city's most elite schools, despite the larger school system being heavily populated with Black and Latinx students.
The pandemic has brought these issues into sharper focus, with students now lacking proper academic records based on in-person classes for part of the last school year, and likely a good chunk of this one as well. And that is what prompted the San Francisco Board of Education to propose last fall that Lowell High School, one of just a couple of public schools that uses a merit-based admissions policy, take one year off from that policy and use a lottery system instead. All of San Francisco's other high schools — apart from the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, which requires an audition or portfolio — use a lottery-based admission system.
The resulting fight, which played out in some ugly ways during public-comment sections of live-streamed virtual board meetings, including some clearly racist rhetoric and efforts to undermine any changes through threats and intimidation. In one instance, a creepy video surfaced on social media showing a bloody-gloved hand holding photos of two female school board members, both with swastikas on the foreheads and Xs across their faces, being set on fire, with the message "No to Nazism in SFUSD."
It's unclear what the "Nazism" that was being referred to, but the overall thrust of the school board's efforts has been to try to be as equitable as possible in this year's admissions when it comes to the educational opportunities provided by Lowell — which is considered one of the best high schools in the country.
On Tuesday, the school board voted 5-2 to permanently, not temporarily, do away with Lowell's merit-based system, following hours of discussion and public comment, as ABC7 reports.
"I hope to get to a place where all of our high schools are high schools that students want to go to, that students dream of going to just like Lowell. I think they should all be at that level," said Board of Education President Gabriela Lopez, speaking to ABC7 in the fall
The urgency to take the vote now, against the desires of two commissioners who wished to delay it, was spurned in part by acts of racism earlier this month — namely an intrusion on an online class that had racist undertones, which many said was likely the act of Lowell students.
"Twenty minutes before this meeting started, we discovered more acts of racism towards Black students at Lowell," said Megan Law, a Lowell student and vice president of the Student Advisory Council, during the school board's February 2 meeting, adding to the issue's urgency.
Central to the debate at Lowell are low-income white and Asian parents who fear their high-performing children will lose the opportunity to go to Lowell under a lottery system, after working years toward this goal.
But the debate goes well beyond Lowell and San Francisco — and the racial disparities seen at Lowell are different but not totally dissimilar to what's been seen in those elite New York City schools.
The chart above shows the disparity, which is most pronounced for Black and Latinx students. Black students make up just 2% of the student body at Lowell, while they represent 6% of the school district overall. Latinx students represent 12% of the Lowell population, but more than twice that in the broader district.
With nearly 2,900 students, more than half of Lowell students are Asian, and 18% are white, while Asians represent 33% of the larger district, and white students represent 15%.
In New York City, the disparities are even more clear — in the city's school system, about 41% of students are Latinx, 26% are Black, 16% are Asian and 15% are white, but at the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, 72.6% of students are Asian, 19% are white, and in the 2019 admissions process only seven Black students made the cut in a class of nearly 900.
New York has been using a standardized admissions test for its merit-based schools for many years, and it is continuing to do so despite activists arguing that with the disruptions in students' education in 2020, no such tests should apply. As the Associated Press reported, the city decided in December to temporarily move to a lottery system for its merit-based middle schools, but the tests are still being used for its high schools. Activists there say that Black and Latinx students more often attend under-performing schools in the city, and their families do not have the same access to or community knowledge of outside resources to prepare for these standardized tests.
"This school is lacking in diversity," said SF student board member Kathya Correa Almanza during Tuesday's debate about Lowell. “You cannot determine or make a decision on who is highly motivated until you look into their everyday life. Diversity is not a bad thing."
The larger discussions about equity in our nation's school will not end here, and there's likely to be more discussion about why Lowell has had the resources to become as great a school as it has when others haven't.
As the Chronicle reported from last week's school board meeting, one Lowell parent, Tiffany Abuan, spoke out on the admissions policy change to say, "What does it change? It doesn’t change a lack of buses to bring students from different parts of the city. It doesn’t address that not all kids feel prepared to attend. What we don’t have is a majority of administrators and teachers who are experts in dismantling systems of racial oppression."
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