To some, it was a refreshing and overdue move to address long-standing inequities. In the eyes of critics, it was a hasty decision that drew attention away from a more urgent problem: how to reopen city schools that were — and for most San Francisco students, still are — closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Either way, it was a sign of how the San Francisco school board has been operating of late: a heavy focus on controversial, difficult racial issues, and slow progress on school reopening.
As a result, a recall campaign is working to oust three members of the seven-person board. The board faces a lawsuit over the procedures used to change Lowell admissions. The city sued its own school district to try to force open buildings. And the superintendent quit and was persuaded to come back only after board members agreed, in writing, to focus on reopening schools.
“This is not just about the school reopening,” said Siva Raj, who is leading the recall effort with his partner, Autumn Looijen. “This is about the broader dysfunction on the school board.” He said the amount of time spent on extraneous issues including Lowell is “totally out of sync with what parents wanted.”
Yet for Shavonne Hines-Foster, a graduating senior who is president of the Black Student Union at Lowell, it was a relief that the board was trying to level the playing field for Black and Latino applicants. “The system is flawed,” she said. “Those who are qualified often can get left out.”
This academic year has been difficult for school districts nationwide that have been forced to balance the health risks of in-person schooling against the academic and psychological costs of staying home. Multiple districts have fought disputes about reopening in court. Many have battled publicly with teachers unions. At the same time, school leaders have struggled to manage inequities in their systems that have been amplified by the pandemic.
But no city has experienced the level of discord as that in San Francisco, both around reopening and around questions of race.
In January, the school board voted to rename 44 schools, after a committee found that the people the schools were named for had connections to slavery, oppression and racism — even if the alleged ties were thin or, in some cases, historically questionable or inaccurate.
Last month, the school board reversed that decision, backtracking in the face of a lawsuit and criticism that its priorities were misguided.
In March, anti-Asian tweets posted in 2016 by school board Vice President Alison Collins surfaced. Written before she was on the school board, the tweets accused Asian Americans of benefiting from the “‘model minority’ BS” and using “white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’ ” She also suggested that they were not standing up to President Donald Trump, using a racial slur to describe them.
Prominent city leaders called for her resignation, and the school board voted to strip her of her vice president title. In response, Collins sued the board for $87 million.
Through all this, the city’s school buildings remained closed, even as private schools in the area and public schools elsewhere in the region operated in person. In-person classes did not begin until mid-April, and only for the youngest children. Even now, only 19,000 of the district’s 56,000 students have an in-person option.
“Look, I believe in equity,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed (D) said in a statement last fall. She added: “But the fact that our kids aren’t in school is what’s driving inequity in our City. Not the name of a school.”
In March, Superintendent Vincent Matthews said he was retiring at the end of this school year. Then, after a plea from the board president, he said in April that he would stay for another year, but only if the board agreed to focus on school reopening and desist from debating other subjects until schools are open. In his new contract, board members also agreed to “govern in a dignified and professional manner, treating everyone with civility and respect.”
Board President Gabriela López declined by email to answer questions about any topic, saying she was focused on trying to reopen schools.
It was in the middle of all this that the school board decided to change the way students are admitted to Lowell High School.
Like selective magnet schools in Boston, New York and elsewhere, Lowell’s student body is disproportionately made up of Asian American and White students, with Black and Hispanic students underrepresented. The hope is that diversity will increase with a lottery in which students rank their choices but do not win an advantage based on academics. But the change means that students with the best grades and scores may not be admitted.
“I support changing the policy,” said the Rev. Amos C. Brown, a longtime civil rights leader in San Francisco. “You know why? Nobody owns the school.”
Lowell High School was founded in 1856 and touts itself as the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi. Its reputation grew over time as an elite and challenging academic school, with Nobel laureates and a Supreme Court justice among the accomplished graduates.
But the racial makeup of Lowell’s student body has been an issue for decades. In 1983, a lawsuit filed by the NAACP led to racial quotas at the school that prohibited any one racial or ethnic group from exceeding 40 percent of the student body. A decade later, that policy was challenged by three Chinese American families that argued that it was unfair that their children had to score much higher on admissions exams than others to be admitted. The quotas were modified in 1999 and eliminated a few years later.
By the time Shavonne Hines-Foster was applying to Lowell, the student body was majority Asian American, and the school had developed a reputation for anti-Black racism. In 2016, the Black Student Union staged a walkout after an offensive sign was posted in the library during Black History Month.
Hines-Foster said she decided to apply nonetheless. After she was accepted, she encountered racism almost immediately, she says. An Asian American student sang a song with the n-word in it in front of her, she said, and when she asked him why he was doing that, he replied, “No one cares” and called her the n-word.
Black students, she said, are sometimes asked, “Why are you at Lowell?” and the implication is that they don’t belong there.
“Black students and Brown students are not seen as smart,” she said. “The demographics of our school reinforce that idea.”
Hines-Foster would recommend that younger Black students apply to Lowell and was frustrated to see students she believed to be qualified rejected. Nonetheless, changes to Lowell admissions were not part of her campaign when she was elected in a citywide vote last year to become a student delegate to the school board. No one was talking about that then, she said.
The pandemic made it impossible for the district to fairly administer an exam that had been central to admissions decisions. At the last minute, in October, the school board voted to admit students for the coming year via ranked-choice lottery, the same process used for other high schools. The new policy affected only the coming school year, but members made clear that they were interested in longer-term changes.
Then, on Jan. 20, students at Lowell were participating in an anti-racism session online. They were asked to share their thoughts on a platform called Padlet, and the reactions automatically popped onto the screen for everyone to see. Somebody — the perpetrator has yet to be identified — posted violently racist and antisemitic comments and pornographic photos.
Three weeks later, the school board voted to permanently change Lowell admissions to the lottery system and to conduct an “equity audit.”
Matthews, the schools superintendent, said issues at Lowell go back to when he was entering high school. His mother wanted him to attend Lowell, but he said he feared that he would be one of the only African American students and decided against it.
“The board for some time has known that some type of change has been needed to take place at Lowell,” he said in an interview.
It appears as though the lottery system is creating a more diverse ninth-grade class for the coming year. Black students make up 4.8 percent of those admitted for the fall, up from 1.9 percent last year. Hispanic students are about 23 percent, nearly double the 12.5 percent last year. The portion of Chinese students is 25.3 percent, and the share of White students, 18.5 percent, are both lower than their numbers last year.
The decision has come under heavy criticism from many parents and graduates, who argue that the removal of academic standards will water down the school and destroy what makes it special.
Dennis Wu, who is Chinese American, said his son, Dennis Casey Wu, a junior at Lowell, felt bullied in middle school but has thrived at Lowell. He is a member of the Dragon Boat team, a traditionally Chinese watercraft competition.
“Lowell has always been a school where you had to do well academically,” the elder Wu said.
Darya Mean, who is White and has one son who graduated from Lowell and another there now, said: “My concern is that the lottery may increase the diverse numbers somewhat, but what’s going to happen to the school?” She said she put her children into private school for their elementary and middle years because the public schools available through the lottery were unacceptable. Lowell needs to remain academically elite for students who will thrive in that environment, she said.
Christine Linnenbach, a 1989 Lowell graduate, filed a lawsuit in April on behalf of the Lowell Alumni Association, the Friends of Lowell Foundation and the Asian American Legal Foundation, alleging that the school board did not follow proper procedures in making the decision. She thinks that Lowell is special in part because of its competitive admissions but hopes the board can try again, using a more inclusive process.
“My hope is to call a timeout, get people to the table,” she said.
Even some graduates who oppose the change say the issue is complicated. Terry Abad, executive director of the Lowell Alumni Association, said students who do not want to work hard probably will not rank Lowell as their top choice, because of its reputation for rigor.
He added that the Lowell community knew its demographics were out of whack and that alumni should have tried to work on the problem before it came to a head, such as making contact in Black and Latino neighborhoods to introduce the school and help with applications.
“We should have been doing a lot more over the years,” he said. “We haven’t, so we’re caught flat-footed and it’s our fault.”