Lowell High School. Photo by Alexia Aubault

Mayor London Breed is reportedly rounding third on selecting three new members of the school board. And this is a fraught process for her: With de facto mayoral control of the Board of Education, school performance joins homelessness and public safety as yet another intractable problem for which voters can hold her accountable in the year leading up to her re-election bid.

It’s also a fraught process for those three new board members, who’ll have to run on their own in November. And it’s a fraught process for a board and district that will have to balance a tough budget, hire a new superintendent, implement a school assignment system, cope with declining enrollment, turn around rock-bottom morale — and deal with Lowell, of course. 

The previous school board’s decision to nix Lowell High School’s merit-based admissions process induced great vengeance and furious anger from that school’s partisans and alumni, who won a legal challenge, and played no small role in adding fuel to the recall fire.

But, regardless of what those partisans and alumni want, Lowell’s old admissions process isn’t coming back — and can’t come back. 

Numerous current and former Board of Education members tell Mission Local that the school district’s general counsel has warned them, in closed-session meetings and in writing, that Lowell’s old merit-based admissions policy is incompatible with California law.

If the district were to be sued, it would lose. In private, the district has been candid about  this for years. 

And, now, it admits it publicly.

Recalled School board president Gabriela López, and commissioners Alison Collins and Faauuga Moliga. Photos courtesy SFUSD

This revelation is a long time coming. In 2018, the Chronicle reported that some board members were concerned the district’s policies could violate state law. But the Board of Education members I spoke with last week expressed this in far more certain terms. 

“When I was on the board, the district general counsel essentially told us that Lowell was in violation of state law,” said one board alum, “and if we were to be sued, we’d lose.” 

“I got legal advice when I was on the Board of Education that Lowell’s admission policy is in violation of the California education code,” said another. “They warned us about that.” 

“We would never create a Lowell today. It is an anachronism,” said a third. “If somebody sued us over admissions at Lowell, I don’t know we could’ve won or even defended it. The board, for years, looked for ways to undo it in a manner that wouldn’t bring a political storm down on the school district. I never understood why some equity group didn’t sue us. That would’ve eliminated the sturm und drang.” 

The fates of vanquished Board of Education members Alison Collins, Gabriela López and Fauuga Moliga illustrate how far that sturm und drang could go. You can chalk up prior boards’ inaction on Lowell as prioritizing of more important matters, political astuteness, or a desire for political survival. Just like explaining the factors behind the successful recall, more than one thing can simultaneously be true. 

“When I was on the board, the district general counsel essentially told us that Lowell was in violation of state law, and if we were to be sued, we’d lose.” 

If you’re wondering just what passage of the California Education Code has the school district lawyers gritting their teeth, check 35160.5 (b)(2)(B). 

The operative passage states that if more students want to go to a school than it has room to serve, the district must ensure “that selection of pupils to enroll in the school is made through a random, unbiased process that prohibits an evaluation of whether a pupil should be enrolled based upon the pupil’s academic or athletic performance.”

This stipulation does not apply to “programs for gifted and talented pupils” or “specialized schools.” 

There are a great many gifted and talented students at Lowell, but it is not an explicit Gifted and Talented Education program. It’s a high school.  

Similarly, it is not a “specialized” school. If you’re uncertain exactly what a specialized school is, the state Department of Education lists establishments focusing on adults, American Indians, homeless people, the blind, the deaf, etc. It also lists “private schools and schooling at home.”

Lowell is not that. It isn’t even categorized as a magnet school; it’s a “comprehensive” high school. 

Again, the district knows this. While district officials prevaricated to the Chronicle about Lowell’s status in 2018 (when the school’s merit-based admissions policy was actively violating state codes), they’ve chosen to be direct about the situation now (after that policy has been rescinded). 

“Any decision to either restore the Lowell Admissions Policy or to supersede it with another admissions policy must be consistent with the requirements of Education Code section 35160.5 (b)(2)(B) which explicitly prohibits public school districts from making enrollment decisions based on the student’s academic performance,” the district stated in an email to Mission Local on Friday.  

In “spring 2022, the Superintendent will return to the Board with a recommended timeline for stakeholder engagement and decision on the admissions policy for Lowell High School for 2023-2024 and subsequent school years.”  

Board of Education member Alison Collins and her offending tweets. Photo courtesy of sfusd.edu.

The Board of Education’s decision to permanently undo Lowell’s merit-based admission criteria came in February 2021. One month later, an incensed Lowell alumna  unearthed a series of incendiary 2016 tweets from school board vice president Alison Collins that, among other claims, posited that Asians “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’”

Until the 2020-21 school year, more than 50 percent of Lowell’s students were Asian, and Asians constitute a 33 percent plurality district-wide. Suddenly, a process that would have always been contentious was rendered downright toxic.    

The board’s decision to enact this change in the midst of the pandemic, and in a manner so devoid of public input a judge later declared it illegal, would have been problematic regardless of the result. It was a repeat of the board’s misadventure in renaming schools. Once again, a necessary conversation and a goal that many people could have been convinced to accept, if not embrace, was dashed by an arrogant and misguided process.  

The legacy of the recalled school board members may end up being a tarnishing of the very concepts of equity and racial justice, two ideals everyone in San Francisco ostensibly says they support. And that’s a damn shame: The ousted commissioners’ hamfisted, overbearing behavior has made it that much harder for the remaining members of the board to push back against a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has often ill-served its poor and minority students.  

Regardless, by next month, the ousted commissioners’ ideological allies will be outvoted. Soon, a majority of school board members will pick up the phone when the mayor calls, not when the teachers’ union calls. 

Breed’s political future is now tied to this board, so expect her to nominate loyalists. Also expect her to focus on people who have a shot at winning in November, and people who’ve done something for her before.

There are also complicated racial sensitivities the mayor must navigate to replace an ousted Black woman, Latina woman, and Pacific Islander man. And then there’s the Chinese community, which was pivotal in pushing the recall — and is growing tired of asking for proper representation. Recall leader Ann Hsu last week told Mission Local that “I think all of us expect that the mayor will appoint at least one Chinese person. I think if she doesn’t, there will be an uproar.” (When you call around seeking names of potential nominees, Hsu comes up a lot). 

In spite of all the opprobrium the school board brought on itself by rescinding Lowell’s merit-based admissions process, and in spite of the resultant support and energy funneled into the recall movement, Lowell’s old system isn’t coming back. Figuring out what comes next will be a task for the next school board. And it’s hard to foresee any potential outcome that would please the ardent supporters of Lowell’s prior system who helped carry the recall. 

The next year and a half of political wars, posturing and jockeying involving our public schools figures to be exhausting. And that doesn’t even take into account the small matter of educating our children.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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86 Comments

  1. And therein lies the problem. The School Board does things without getting any kind of input from the greater public. They only try to get input from echo chamber groups. So, of course, when you only listen to people that parrot your point of view, you’re going to justify your own decisions in that manner. Then you’re left with trying to justify those decisions to the rest of your constituents.

  2. At the core of the problem is a culture that’s based on having students “compete” over the precious little quality education there is. It is like: Graduates didn’t get a recognized education unless they (and parents) learned how to climb over the rest. A lot of talent gets wasted in the grinder that way, too. Not all parents are cut out to gloat about how “gifted” their kids are and push them down the pike for years. We could save ourselves a lot of thrash and exacerbation if there was a commitment to offering and delivering adequate levels of schooling around the city without that kind of “competition” for sure.
    (Same goes for other parts of the Bay area as well of course).

    1. Every other school in SF is non-merit based and a disaster. SFUSD is one of the worst performing districts in the country and has been for decades, but Lowell was the lone bright spot.

  3. Sounds like they should fix the state law. Lowell was the shinning light of the public school system in San Francisco. It was something people in middle school aspired to. It properly prepared students for college. The other public high schools should be using the lowell system as an example. I don’t understand why high school admissions are different than college? UC Berkeley and Sacramento State have different admission criteria. Is that racist?

  4. There are a lot of half-truths here.

    Unfortunately, the law does not define “specialized”, but I’m pretty sure it’s not just “adults, American Indians, homeless people, the blind, the deaf, etc”. The sentence that required lottery enrollment except for grandfathered “specialized schools” passed in 1993 https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=199319940AB1114. So if the grandfathering provision did not apply to Lowell, we would have had this fight 28 years ago. When I searched for AB 1114 I found this article https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1993-10-29-me-50996-story.html which says “Science, performing arts and computer training are typical specializations, although a customized school can include different schedules, grades or codes of conduct.” Perhaps this is why Lowell has a scheduling “arena” to let kids pick their classes. Given the choice between making Lowell no longer special and increasing the specialization, I think the district should be open to making Lowell even more specialized (e.g. by offering post-calculus classes).

    Moreover, activists don’t have standing to “sue” over EDC 35160.5(b)(2)(B); this is enforced by the state superintendent.

    And the Board of Education does not need to make a “decision” to restore Lowell merit admissions. They never officially made the decision to remove merit admissions permanently, since the 2/9/2021 resolution was nullified by the judge because they violated the Brown Act. So if the Board does nothing, then the original policy will return in 2023 after the two temporary policies expire. I guess then the next question is whether the new superintendent will enforce the policy as it exists (Board Policy 5120.1 http://go.boarddocs.com/ca/sfusd/Board.nsf/goto?open&id=AZS28M7BDEA9).

    1. >Unfortunately, the law does not define “specialized”

      In 35160.5 (b)(2)(B), it was defined as so:

      However, school districts may employ existing entrance criteria for specialized schools or programs if the criteria are uniformly applied to all applicants. This subdivision shall not be construed to prohibit school districts from using academic performance to determine eligibility for, or placement in, programs for gifted and talented pupils established pursuant to former Chapter 8 (commencing with Section 52200) of Part 28 of Division 4, as that chapter read on January 1, 2014.

      However, that section is repealed as part of SB-971. Meaning, it UNILATERALLY requires it, and has been active since 9/30/14. That also means Lowell, has already been breaching that section of the Education code.

      https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201320140SB971

      >Moreover, activists don’t have standing to “sue” over EDC 35160.5(b)(2)(B); this is enforced by the state superintendent.

      They can, you can sue over anything. Especially Education Codes which is supported by California law.

      >So if the Board does nothing, then the original policy will return in 2023 after the two temporary policies expire.

      As stated above, the NAACP has been eyeing this for years and is a key part of getting to the board about this in the first place, and they damn know about this.

      The district’s own legal professionals already agreed that it had to happen.

      1. > However, that section is repealed as part of SB-971. Meaning, it UNILATERALLY requires it, and has been active since 9/30/14

        No, although SB 971 (2014) repealed state GATE funding (EDC §52200), this section EDC 35160.5 (b)(2)(B) explicitly allows GATE programs established before that to continue to admit students “as that chapter read on January 1, 2014” . And that’s in addition to specialized schools which are still allowed.

        > The district’s own legal professionals already agreed that it had to happen.

        What exactly was the counsel’s full opinion? What are all the options on the table (e.g. maintaining specialized status)? This article comes across as an anonymous attack by disgruntled recalled Board of Education members (such as @AliMCollins) and other members who have an axe to grind.

        In my opinion, one reason for the recall is that Board of Education members kept saying that it “had to happen” their way, and brushed aside everyone who disagreed (especially Asian people) as white supremacists even when they had valid points (e.g. that parents want to incentivize studying).

        1. Sir —

          You’ll note I spoke to six current/former BOE members. Six is more than three.

          You’re assuming I spoke to recalled board members. You know what they say about making assumptions.

          Also, note the on-the-record statement from the district.

          I remember visiting a judge’s office when I was a child, and there was an editorial cartoon of a justice addressing a lawyer. The caption was: “Nice argument. But you lose.”

          Yours,

          JE

          1. Maybe you should list the Board members (current and past) you spoke to – ya know, document your sources. Right now your article appears to be based on street corner conversations.

          2. Al — 

            I’ve been doing this 20+ years and you can either trust the half a dozen sources I have or not. You would also need to discount the on-the-record statement from the District and the 2018 article from the Chron.

            At some point, it becomes a futile exercise.

            JE

          3. Apparently Joe doesn’t realize that lawyers will provide an opinion their clients, a BOE with a political agenda to de-Asianize Lowell in this case, wants to hear.

        2. As legal analysis goes, this article gets a D-

          Even if one credits these unnamed former board members with believing what this article says they said, they then knowingly allowed this violation of state law to continue without even saying a word about it (much less changing it or asking a court to declare it unlawful), a violation of their oaths. I’d like to see this general counsel opinion. May be valid, or may be complete garbage. It’s telling that they appear to be keeping it a secret from the public.

          1. Jerry — 

            As analysis of realpolitik goes, this comment gets a D-

            As noted in the story, our board members have many problems to solve (if you give them the benefit of the doubt) — and may not be inclined to fall on top of a political grenade (if you don’t). Glance through the comments here and figure how they read to an elected official.

            JE

          2. Joe, my point was rhetorical. Sorry, but every one of these officials, and the general counsel, are not just going to twiddle their thumbs if they truly thought Lowell was in violation of state law. Maybe they would because, you know, “realpolitik”? If so, then we have a bigger systemic problem on our hands and they should all be tossed. The point being that Lowell very likely is not violating state law.

    2. In Scotland and the UK, selective high schools such as Lowell were banished decades ago. Why is San Francisco just catching up now?

  5. Is the counsel the same from Alison Collin’s $87 million dollar lawsuit?

    Lowell sounds like it fits. Recategorize it already, if needed. Problem solved.
    “programs for gifted and talented pupils” or “specialized schools.”

    1. The anti-Black component of the recall illuminated evidence that the kernel of her tweets was not in error.

      Too bad that she foregrounded the performative and concern for the immediate feelings of students instead of focusing on what it takes to uproot the racist foundations in the SFUSD, building support for it and moving that agenda.

      Yep, making social change is going to elicit a backlash, so you’ve gotta be prepared for that going into it.

      I don’t think that anyone anticipated the extent to which pandemic disempowerment antagonized the conservative psyche to rage against everything in the city that made them uncomfortable, SFUSD, cars, homelessness, substance use.

  6. Then the state law needs to change or Lowell needs to be categorized as a gifted or magnate school. SF should absolutely have a merit based school for gifted kids. If the issue is that certain minorities are under-represented, then create tutoring programs to help them. Don’t just eliminate the program in the name of “equity” — where in this case, equity means teaching to the lowest common denominator and forcing gifted kids to be bored out of their minds.

    And please, can we stop with the de-track math / eliminate AP classes / eliminate calculus rhetoric? As someone who went to a competitive engineering undergrad program, I can tell you that if you showed up without at least 1 and preferably 2 years of high school calculus, you were hopelessly behind on day one and had a very high chance of not making it through freshman year. You’re creating a generation that will have very little chance of success in STEM higher education. Not every kid is ready for calculus. Many / most will never need it. But for those who want to get an engineering degree, it’s absolutely essential.

  7. Does this mean the Ruth Awasa School for the Arts has an illegal admissions policy as well? Or is that the only “specialized” high school in SF?

    1. Ann — 

      I probably should’ve put something about this in the article. I do believe a performing arts school qualifies as “specialized.” And, even if it does not, students at SOTA are not gauged on “academics or athletics,” which are the criteria mentioned in the Ed. Code.

      Yours,

      JE

  8. Dumbing down, teaching to the lowest common denominator is no way to educate children and opportunities to achieve excellence should not be abandoned. Seems to me the law is not so clear on the elimination of Lowell’s standards. I was in favor of the recall for more reasons than the admissions policy at Lowell. I’m looking forward to a new day on the Board of Education. Good luck to the Mayor in finding a rewarding competence first in her selection of new board members.

    1. I wish you could see what you look like when you use the terms “lowest common denominator” and “dumbing down”.

  9. You all keep arguing about race and inequality. I’ll work two jobs so my kids can attend parochial school, where they’re judged by their hard work not the color of their skin. Idiots

  10. If this is at all accurate, then Lowell (and certainly some other schools) needs to be classified as a magnet, International Baccalaureate, or gifted school. We need more competitive and merit-based admissions and education, not less. We should not be dumbing down our schools. We should have extensive Advanced Placement courses in all schools.

  11. So California that it is now literally illegal to run a magnet school in California. Then the idiot politicians wonder why so much of the beleaguered middle class is moving to Austin or Flagstaff. Of course rich white progressives in Pacific Heights can afford to send their kids to private schools; hard working Asian Americans in the Sunset already groaning under insane mortgage payments and the prospect of having to save for our ludicrously overpriced higher education system (BTW has anyone noticed that the greediest industries – entertainment, “non profit colleges” being two perfect examples are ones run by people who vote 100% Democratic) are out of luck since they study “unfairly” hard.

  12. Something doesn’t smell right. If the district is now saying publicly that Lowell’s admissions system is unlawful, why isn’t there a clear public statement from the district to that effect? Why just a noncommital email from the district to Mission Local and some anonymous quotes from “current and former” board members who apparently aren’t willing to go on record? If there’s more support for this story, you should publish it. Otherwise, it’s just a continuation of the “it’s illegal” narrative that some board members have been pushing, unsuccessfully, for years. The only newsworthy aspect is the lengths to which these board members are willing to go, including trying (against the advice of the district’s counsel) to persuade the board to violate the court order setting aside the Lowell resolution and, now apparently, breaching the attorney-client privilege by disclosing their discussions with the district’s counsel to Mission Local. No matter how one feels about Lowell admissions, this kind of behavior on the part of elected officials should alarm us all.

    1. Elaine —

      I’m confused why you’d expect the district, which had for years privately acknowledged it was in a legally tenuous position, would now proactively come out and make and make a public statement after the fact. Your assumption that I spoke to the board members you have in mind is also tenuous. If you have trouble squaring the facts stated by half a dozen former BOE members, the district itself, and the 2018 Chronicle article, I don’t know what to say to you.

      By the way, lawyers breach attorney-client privilege. Not clients.

      Best,

      JE

      1. Joe – I didn’t expect the district to “proactively” make a statement. I expected that the statement you obtained from the district in the course of your reporting would support your claim that the district now “admits it publicly.” It doesn’t. It’s a typical lawyerly email that doesn’t admit or deny anything. So what’s the basis for the claim that the district now “admits it publicly?” All that’s left are the off the record comments from anonymous current and former board members. If I’m having “trouble squaring the facts,” it’s because I don’t see how those anonymous comments amount to a public admission by the district, which, as you point out, would be a big deal after all these years. You’re right about attorney-client privilege, and I should have been more accurate. Their comments were a waiver of attorney-client privilege and, if unauthorized, a breach of their fiduciary duty to the district.

        1. Elaine — 

          When a journalist asks an on-the-record question of the district spokeswoman and she sends an official, on-the-record response to be published in a news article, that’s a public statement. A statement does not need to be printed on the school website or shouted from the mountaintops to be public. As noted in this article, the district prevaricated when asked much the same questions four years ago by the Chronicle.

          The District now admits that any Lowell admissions policy is going to have to abide by the Ed. Code that, in the District’s own words, “explicitly prohibits public school districts from making enrollment decisions based on the student’s academic performance.”

          What are we parsing here, ma’am?

          Yours,

          JE

          1. For the most part, the current Lowell admissions policy requires a high grade point average. You can argue about whether or not a high grade point average is associated with a mastery of material. Still, I would suspect that most San Francisco students with good marks in middle school actually earned those grades. That means that currently, most students at Lowell have a mastery of middle school material. If the new Lowell admissions policy moves away from a requirement for high grades, on average, there will be more students struggling once they are confronted with the requirements of the more difficult classes at Lowell.

            Last time I checked, the SFUSD has a $125 million deficit. Lowell, in fact, has already taken significant cuts over the last five years.

            If Lowell admissions were to go to a straight lottery, what could happen is that many less prepared students would avoid the harder classes. That would mean that the more difficult classes at Lowell would have fewer students. This would make them more costly to teach and likely many of these classes would then be cancelled.

          2. Marnie — 

            What you say may well be true, but it has no bearing on the substance of my article.

            JE

          3. Just trying to understand the basis for your reporting because it would be pretty remarkable for the district to publicly take the position that it’s been breaking the law for decades, especially given the ambiguity of the law. IMHO, the on record email doesn’t take a position either way and the off record board members aren’t speaking for the district. Time will tell, I guess.

        2. The ACLU, Community Coalition, and/or NAACP was poised to sue the shit out of the district over it, back in 2016 after the Lowell BSU walkouts.

          They probably wanted the district to figure it out with Lowell, but when those efforts failed over the next 4 years, patience wore thin.

          SFUSD General Counsel knew this was happening in the background, and didn’t want to take the political death flak, so the board eventually did.

          Now the board admitted it, once the political anger was lessened.

      2. Joe, the client in this case is SFUSD/BoE and can only be waived by a vote of the current BoE as a whole, not by individual members, and definitely not by individual former members.

        1. Hope — 

          I’m not certain about that, but, regardless, that’s not my concern. I don’t work for them. I’m a journalist and I have the information and now you do too.

          1. Oh, it absolutely isn’t your concern or issue as a reporter, other than that the motives and objectives of people who are willing to violate their obligation (which is why they are not on the record). Particularly on matters that have never been litigated before, opinions by people who aren’t the judge are just that.

          2. Hope — 

            You’re not wrong, but the fact of the matter is that the district General Counsel — in fact, a series of them — have made it clear that they do not consider the prior Lowell admission policy to be defensible, and felt the district would likely lose a challenge.

            The reason you talk to three, four, five, six, eight people is to mitigate concerns that someone is behaving with specific ulterior motives or vindictively.

            Yours,

            JE

    2. Your comment is a fine example of why BOE members and prior members would want to remain anonymous. The proverbial mob is still at the afterparty with their pitchforks leaning in the corner.

      1. So it’s OK for elected officials to disclose confidential legal advice to the media? And it’s understandable that they do it anonymously because anyone who criticizes them is clearly just part of a pitchfork mob? Interesting take.

        1. @Elaine – It’s not confidential. You made that up.

          Mark Sanchez made a very similar quote to that which is seen here to 48hills in 2020 and the Chronicle in 2018. Maybe Joe decided on his own to make the quotes anonymous across the board – he didn’t indicate it was requested, and he could’ve gotten Sanchez on record.

          Anonymity is understandable because of the vitriol that has taken place and the elections that are soon to come.

          1. It literally says in the article that the information they gave to Mission Local was legal advice provided to them by the district’s general counsel in “closed door meetings” and in writing, which means it was privileged. Google “attorney-client privilege” if you don’t know what that means.

  13. Here’s an alternative view on Lowell.

    My question about Lowell has always been, why is there only one Lowell in San Francisco? Rather than moving away from the AP classes at Lowell, and dumbing it down, perhaps we should be creating at least one more San Francisco school with top notch AP classes in math and science combined with the academic breadth of Lowell.

    We also need to address the fact that many children fall so far behind in middle school on critical subjects like algebra in San Francisco that they can’t catch up in high school. We need to decide if we are going to let so many kids give up on algebra in middle school. Maybe kids need second and third chances to grasp these critical subjects.

    What we have now is that because so many students in San Francisco fall behind in algebra in middle school, there is no way that many students can succeed even in the regular classes, let alone the AP classes, at Lowell in high school.

    Lowell is broadly teaching the California curriculum. If you look at the University of California A-G standards, Lowell is one of a few San Francisco public schools that fully allows high school students to meet the UC California A-G standards in a broad range of science and math subjects, as well as other subject, at a high standard.

    Not everyone wants to pursue a field that requires a science and math background. There is little reason to send someone to Lowell if they want to focus on areas like languages, literature, political science, history or the arts. I am confident that there are many other San Francisco high schools that teach these non-STEM fields very well.

    So, regardless of the admission process at Lowell, the broader issue is that not every student wants to pursue STEM fields. As well, at the moment and for many decades, a majority of students in San Francisco fall out of the running to pursue math and science based disciplines in middle school.

    It would be a shame if there was no school in San Francisco that did an excellent job preparing students for the University of California A-G standards in math and science.

    A major driver of the economy in the Bay Area is excellence across a broad range of disciplines, including math and science based disciplines. One way or another, at least some students need to be excelling in math and science in high school and university for their to be a vibrant economy in California.

    Certainly, the enrollment process at Lowell could be improved. At the same time, more needs to be done about the fact that many students in San Francisco are being ill served during the middle school years when it comes to preparation for a school like Lowell.

    Alison Collins does not have a STEM background. She has a degree in education. She was a real-estate consultant before she became a board member. Her husband, Chris Collins, is a real-estate developer. I find Alison’s singular focus on the Lowell admission process as a primary source of inequality in our public schools to be poorly informed and highly political. Children and parents deserve board members that are well informed and there for the long haul to improve the availability, depth and breadth of public school education opportunities in San Francisco. They do not need another highly political self serving board member that destructively nibbles away at public school admission policies while manipulating their way to their next cushy gig.

    1. The whole school district is a disaster, always has been. It’s the school of last resort for parents. Lowell became a focal point because of politics, pure and simple. And of course a huge distraction from the real issues facing the school district.

  14. Joe, it sounds like you’re trying to fit the facts into your narrative, rather than other way around.

    1) SOTA’s website notes that, “Admission to Ruth Asawa is solely based on audition outcomes.” https://www.sfusd.edu/schools/enroll/apply/ruth-asawa. Auditions are not “a random, unbiased process” which you cite as the law for high school admissions.

    2) Why do you state that SOTA would be considered “specialized”, and Lowell would not? Seems like there’s no basis for that divergence.

    3) The Department of Education link you included lists “Magnet Schools” in the department’s “specialized programs” list that you cite. https://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/eo/mt/. That indicates that Lowell is a “specialized” school, according to your own sources.

    1. Sir or madam — 

      Lowell is not a magnet school. It’s a “comprehensive high school.” Auditions are also not gauging “academics or athletics,” and SOTA is not a comprehensive high school.

      I don’t have a narrative here, but you don’t like the facts. Again: Half a dozen current/former BOE members affirm this was the legal advice they were given. The district is now admitting that, on the record. And the Chronicle had elements of this four years ago.

      You can take up your argument with the district itself.

      Yours,

      JE

      1. SOTA is not a comprehensive high school? That is nonsense (coming from a parent whose two kids graduated from SOTA).

        1. Jerry — 

          SOTA is, to the best of my knowledge, a specialized high school. Regardless, the entry criteria are not based on “academics or athletics.”

          JE

      2. Joe,

        Not sure how you could arrive at this conclusion with such certainty. Lowell’s status still seems far from clear cut:

        https://www.sfexaminer.com/opinion/why-californias-education-code-does-not-prohibit-academic-admissions-at-lowell-high-school/

        I think the comparison to SOTA is apt. You claim SOTA is not comprehensive, yet their curriculum includes plenty of AP classes in math, English, and the sciences, which would seem to suggest otherwise:

        https://www.sfusd.edu/school/ruth-asawa-san-francisco-school-arts/academicsguidance/math-department

        We can argue over whether “alternative” is an appropriate label for a seemingly comprehensive school like SOTA, or if “magnet” is appropriate for Lowell as some would suggest, but there is still much to debate here.

        1. David — 

          There is certainly much to debate, but the points you’re bringing up won’t figure to take much time. SOTA is officially designated as a “specialized” school and Lowell is not, per state definitions. Lowell partisans will argue that these definitions aren’t the definitions that matter, but the district does not agree with them. It is very hard to overstate how clearly the district has laid out its legal argument. It does not believe Lowell is “specialized” or in any way exempt from the state Ed. Codes. Period.

          Unless some higher authority tells the district otherwise or unless some third way forward can be devised, I don’t foresee satisfaction by attempting to play semantic games.

          Yours,

          JE

  15. This article states: “The legacy of the recalled school board members may end up being a tarnishing of the very concepts of equity and racial justice, two ideals everyone in San Francisco ostensibly says they support.”

    This is an extremely dubious, and very poorly timed, statement.
    Exhibit A: did anyone hear about the recent recall election in which all three very vocal defenders of “equity” were booted out of office in a massive landslide? The idea that everyone in SF “supports” the concept of “equity” should have taken a pretty sound beating as a result, but it seems that some narratives continue shambling on like zombies.

    Exhibit B: does no one else remember the 2020 failed attempt to re-implement Affirmative Action on a CA statewide ballot measure? That measure also went down in a massive defeat.

    Is no one else paying attention? How can anyone state that there is basically unanimous support in SF (or anywhere else in this state or this country) for “equity”?

    And part of the problem, of course, is that the term “equity” does not at present seem to have a widely accepted meaning: not even in SF. To it’s proponents, it seems to imply social justice; to it’s detractors, the term implies a misguided and ultimately doomed attempt to mandate equal outcomes.

    Obviously, there is an ongoing debate between the competing concepts of equality of opportunity (shorthand for “equality”) and equality of outcomes (the “equity” under discussion). But the idea that everyone in SF has come down on the “equity” side of that ongoing discussion, despite so much evidence to the contrary, is truly odd. That sounds to me like the kind of statement someone makes after spending too much time inside their own media or personal echo chamber.

    1. One problem is that few in San Francisco and in the SFUSD can describe what form equity should take.

      Many years ago, when my daughter was about to enter first grade, I became interested in the San Francisco school enrollment policy. At the time, the reason given for the draconian “choice based” kindergarten school enrollment policy was to increase diversity and equity. I remember clearly observing that my neighborhood in Bernal – Glen Park was quite diverse, and that if families were simply assigned to their local school, the schools would be diverse both racially and socioeconomically. Instead, the SFUSD pursued their phony “choice” policy. Anyone who questioned this policy was labelled as being “racist” and against “equity.”

      Fast forward to 2021. Under the much promoted “choice” policy implemented in around 2010, schools became less racially diverse. The SFUSD admitted this and finally implemented a zone based.

      For ten years, parents schlepped their kids across town to mostly distant schools. Every school day morning, traffic was tied up while parents and kids played “get to school musical chairs.” Neighborhood kids barely knew each other because they were all going to different schools. For what? Absolutely nothing. And meanwhile, SFUSD School Board supervisors such as Rachel Norton preached from on high about “equity”. At the time, she lived on the northwest side of the city which is not very diverse.

      At another school, Aptos, kids from the Bayview were bused in for years. But no one bothered to make sure that some of the buses left after the after school clubs and sports programs were finished late in the afternoon. So the kids from the Bayview were not able to participate in the after school and sports programs and were essentially cut off from the social life of the school. The parents tried to speak out about it but the SFUSD Board for many years refused to try to change the contract with the bus company. Aptos was not the only school who had this problem.

      Ever visited an elementary school in the Bayview, Visitation Valley or the Excelsior? Guess what? For a variety of reasons, most of these schools have more junior teachers. Every time there is a layoff, because layoffs are given on the basis of lack of seniority, it is these schools that take the brunt of the teacher layoffs. Right now, the SFUSD is about to layoff more than 400 teachers. Guess which part of the city will be hit with most of the teacher layoffs?

      When you go to community events in San Francisco, it is common to end up talking with people who either don’t have children or had their children more than twenty years ago. Another contingent have their children in private schools. Overall, the city seems very disconnected from what is actually happening in its public schools.

      Equity for the last twenty years among the politicos on the SFUSD Board has meant messing with the kindergarten school assignment system so that there is an increase in racial diversity. This hasn’t worked. Instead, schools have become less racially diverse. SFUSD schools have also lost students as families move out of the city to gain access to cities with more functional school assignment policies. In the process, because state and federal school funding is given on a student per capita basis, San Francisco schools have been defunded. This situation is rapidly reaching a crisis level.

      Continuing to dwell on singular fixations of ill defined notions of “equity” will only further decrease the quality and availability of public school education for all public school students in San Francisco.

      1. Thanks Marnie for your informative contribution. I would add that the issue you touch on, of kids being schlepped all over town in pursuit of results that never happen anyway, is pernicious in the extreme. Raising kids in San Francisco was a nightmare, from just the constant of driving them all over town or being forced to rely on buses. In Japan 97% of kids walk to their local schools. It’s vastly more healthy for the kids and way less stressful for the parents. It’s also more similar to the way things used to be in SF decades ago. And that’s just dealing with the secondary issue of transportation relating to local schools.

  16. Joe:

    Just want to say props for engaging with your commenters. It’s a job in and of itself to research and report, it’s a whole different animal taking the time to respond to online comments.

    Kudos,

    Steve from the Seattle area

  17. I appreciate Joe’s writing style. It was his reporting that caused me to subscribe to Mission Local in the first place.

    But this piece reads like a column, not reporting. (In different directions; the editorializing cuts a few different ways!) It’s not that I disagree with his analysis, but it didn’t read to me like reporting.

    I’ve unsubscribed. I get SF punditry elsewhere, I came here for reporting.

    1. Emily — 

      This *is* a column. I write a reported column. This is a longstanding journalistic practice; I didn’t invent it. With no disrespect intended, I’m a bit confused how a regular reader would not notice this.

      I’m sorry you won’t be reading anymore. You’re going to miss a lot of stories.

      You’re welcome back anytime.

      Yours,

      JE

      1. Fair enough then! I suppose I noticed it most in this piece, as compared to other pieces I’ve read, but also rely on indicators such as the Chron’s explicit labeling of Heather Knight as a columnist in the byline (not that that stops people from misunderstanding her as a reporter). You’re listed as Managing Editor, but perhaps readers would benefit from labeling a piece such as this Column/Education rather than just Education, which may (without a columnist byline) suggest intended as reporting?

        Keep up the good work.

        1. Thanks, Emily.

          It’s a reported column, so I don’t think I’m misleading anyone: Because if the contentions don’t match the reporting, it won’t work and I count on you and others to let me know.

          Yours,

          JE

          1. Thanks Joe! I guess I also come at it from the perspective of an educator: are there easy nudges that create greater media literacy? This column shows up under “Latest News” – a middle/high schooler might not understand the difference between straight reporting and a reported column. (Who reads physical papers anymore to notice the justified vs. no justified text difference for news and opinion?) Media literacy is struggling these days, and also more important than ever.

            Keep up the good work!

  18. You certainly could modify the policy to make it an academic magnet high school. I would urge San Francisco parents, who want to maintain Lowell’s selectivity, to look at Whitney High School in Cerritos, an academic magnet high school which has garnered no complaints from the community. This https://www.whitneyhs.us/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=1260134&type=d&pREC_ID=1429686

    The ABC Unified School District Policy for admitting students to the academic magnet high school is very clear and leaves no room for individual judgment at the school site. The policy is designed to provide admittance to academically qualified students and to a geographically representative group of students. Because Whitney maintains a constant enrollment of 1,020 students, 165 at the seventh grade level, not every qualifying student is admitted. Admission priority is based on the following Board Policy considerations:

    All students must live in the ABC Attendance Area
    All students must take the English Language Arts and Math California Standards or a nationally normed reference test. This test counts as 70% of the total score.

    All sixth graders in California public schools take the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), and private schools take a nationally normed reference test (CAT6, SAT9, Iowa, etc).

    The district writing test counts as 30% of the total score.

    All sixth graders in ABC schools take this test in their classroom.

    ABC residents not currently attending an ABC school must complete a green Whitney Application Form obtained from their school of residence. Forms are available from the beginning of March. All applications must be mailed, along with proof of residency, to the District Testing Office by the date listed on the application.

    Total Scores are ranked according to the middle school and the elementary school that the student attends at the time of testing.
    Enrollment is offered to the students whose scores are in the top 20 of each middle school.
    Enrollment is offered to the highest scoring students of each elementary school.

    The 14 largest of the elementary schools will have 3 slots each.
    The 5 smallest will have 2 slots each.

    Enrollment is offered to the 10 highest scoring of those ABC residents not attending ABC schools.
    Enrollment is offered to the 3 highest scoring students whose parents are ABC permanent employees but who live outside of the district.

  19. I am so grateful for your coverage. It speaks Volumes that so many people are enraged by these facts. Thanks Joe!

  20. I’m in the process of listening to the SFUSD Board meeting regarding teachers layoffs and AP funding cuts at Lowell. Sadly, it looks like the layoff decision has passed.

    One thing that has come up in the meeting is that AP funding is tied to the United Educators of San Francisco Contract. And for a reason that is hard for me to understand, this has resulting in Lowell getting a disproportionate amount of funding to teach AP classes over the last twenty years compared to other schools. That does sound broken. I think this is something that is worth reporting on in more depth. Rather than fixating on the Lowell admission policy, perhaps it would be more helpful to understand why many SFUSD high schools have not gotten much funding to offer AP classes.

  21. Another point that has come up in the board meeting is that spending on upper management positions has increased by 2x in the last 10 years to approximately $40 million per year . . . while the SFUSD student population has gone from 57,000 to approximately 50,000.

  22. The amount of families with children that have left the city because of covid or because they can no longer afford to live in the city cannot be overstated. Somehow those numbers always seem to be conflated with the number who have left sfusd for privates schools. I would love to have a more accurate break down of both.

    1. Here are the SFUSD student demographics since 2015:
      2014-2015 57,000 (approximate)
      2015-2016 (data not available)
      2016-17 53,033
      2017-18 52,592 (0.8 percent drop)
      2018-19 52,468 (0.2 percent drop)
      2019-2020 52,669 (0.4 percent increase)
      2020-2021 50,955 (3.2 percent drop)

      Since the 2008 financial crisis, many major employers have either left the Bay Area completely, or have moved many jobs out of the Bay Area. That is one reason for the drop in SFUSD enrollment. Companies have to pay higher salaries when the cost of housing is high. Sooner or later, they seek out new areas where their employees can get access to more reasonably priced housing.

      Covid resulted in a steep decline in the SFUSD student population because having a child or children completely at home for such an extended period (half of 2019-2020 and all of 2020-2021) made it very hard to maintain two parents working while also handling the home schooling and extra childcare required. I think a lot of families moved to places in California (or out of state) where schools were at least partly in session for the 2020-21 school year to ease the home schooling burden and make it possible for both parents to continue working. A few families might have moved their children to private school, but at this point, private schools are becoming increasingly expensive and out of reach. Tuition for most private schools in San Francisco has significantly increased in the last few years.

      Something else I would note is that for high school, there are very few private high schools in San Francisco that match good public high schools in terms of APs, breadth, athletics and extras like music. Moving a child from a good public high school to a private school is, for the most part, a step down. I know private school parents will probably take exception to this, but I once did an extensive comparison of university acceptances at SF private schools versus Lowell. Lowell won by a wide margin. The only private high school in the Bay Area that exceeds Lowell in this respect is Harker in the South Bay.

      For this reason, I think a lot of families would be more likely to move out of San Francisco to get access to a district with a good public high school than pay exorbitant costs for a San Francisco private high school.

      All of this is to say that if the SFUSD wants to retain its student population, it can’t afford to sacrifice the excellence of its high schools. On the contrary: a major factor why parents put up with the high cost of living in San Francisco is precisely because of excellence of public high schools here.

  23. If Lowell admits students via lottery it is no longer Lowell. You might as well just go to Balboa. You want to go to an academically challenging high school? Study harder.

  24. Probably not. Education Code section 35160.5 was enacted in 1976, before Ho v. SFUSD, Prop. 209, etc. It’s an artifact of a different world. Take a look at subsection (b)(2)(A): “…school districts shall retain the authority to maintain appropriate racial and ethnic balances…” Someone could challenge that vague language and knock out (b)(2)(b) at the same time…here’s the whole thing:

    (b) (1) On or before July 1, 1994, the governing board of each school district, as a condition for the receipt of school apportionments from the State School Fund, shall adopt rules and regulations establishing a policy of open enrollment within the district for residents of the district. This requirement does not apply to a school district that has only one school or a school district with schools that do not serve any of the same grade levels.
    (2) The policy shall include all of the following elements:
    (A) It shall provide that the parent or guardian of each schoolage child who is a resident in the district may select the schools the child shall attend, irrespective of the particular locations of the child’s residence within the district, except that school districts shall retain the authority to maintain appropriate racial and ethnic balances among their respective schools at the school districts’ discretion or as specified in applicable court-ordered or voluntary desegregation plans.

    (B) It shall include a selection policy for a school that receives requests for admission in excess of the capacity of the school that ensures that selection of pupils to enroll in the school is made through a random, unbiased process that prohibits an evaluation of whether a pupil should be enrolled based upon the pupil’s academic or athletic performance. The governing board of a school district shall calculate the capacity of the schools in the district for purposes of this subdivision in a nonarbitrary manner using pupil enrollment and available space. However, school districts may employ existing entrance criteria for specialized schools or programs if the criteria are uniformly applied to all applicants. This subdivision shall not be construed to prohibit school districts from using academic performance to determine eligibility for, or placement in, programs for gifted and talented pupils established pursuant to former Chapter 8 (commencing with Section 52200) of Part 28 of Division 4, as that chapter read on January 1, 2014.”

    1. >(A) It shall provide that the parent or guardian of each schoolage child who is a resident in the district may select the schools the child shall attend, irrespective of the particular locations of the child’s residence within the district, except that school districts shall retain the authority to maintain appropriate racial and ethnic balances among their respective schools at the school districts’ discretion or as specified in applicable court-ordered or voluntary desegregation plans.

      That’s still there because of grandfather clauses of still ongoing desegregation plans and also you can use geography to consider it in the interest of diversity. It is completely legal.

  25. I don’t know the legal ramifications of it, but for a time in the 1970’s, Lowell High was part of the Alternative Schools Department, which turned in to the Student Assignment Office, which in turn, became the Educational Placement Department. The Educational Placement Department title came into being because people were getting it confused with the Student Attendance Office. I don’t know what, if any, name changes have taken place since the 1990’s

  26. Final thoughts on the Lowell admission policy and admission policies at other San Francisco high schools:

    A lot of discussions about the Lowell admissions policy circle around, but do not directly address, the tacit acceptance of scarcity of excellent public schools. I find this to be an elephant in the living room issue for a city that purports to care about social justice.

    The Lowell admission policy as of a year ago was set up so that 70% of the admissions were merit based. Because of high demand, those slots went to students with a straight “A” average. Even students with a few “B”s on their transcript in eighth grade were cut out of merit based admissions at Lowell.

    The remaining 30% of slots were designated for students based on a different set of criteria that generally focused on children who were at risk in various ways.

    Perhaps I am alone in this belief, but I do not think in general that there is much difference in overall capability between a student with a “B” average and an “A” average. Students with “B” averages often have diverse interests such as sports or are interested in community activities. They may also just be distracted because of a family or personal crises. The high demand for a slot at Lowell (requirement for straight “A”s) has resulted in many capable students who want to attend Lowell being shut out.

    What this suggests is that there are simply not enough slots overall in San Francisco high schools for students who are interested in a school like Lowell.

    I do believe that Lowell could benefit from having a more diverse student body. However, I do not think that a straight lottery is the best way to achieve this.

    More needs to be done to broaden the overall availability to excellent San Francisco public schools. There are several other excellent high schools in San Francisco that do not receive the attention (or funding) of Lowell. Perhaps these schools need greater investment and attention to make them attractive in the way that Lowell or SOTA are attractive.

    The use of lotteries in San Francisco for school admissions have not worked out very well. Parents want predictability in school choice. Lotteries are not transparent and are vulnerable to being manipulated to serve corrupt entities. (One thing that can be said in favor of the former Lowell admission policy is that at least it was transparent.) The use of lotteries for school admissions have become deeply resented by San Francisco families. Continued use of lotteries for school admission will result in a further exodus of students and families from San Francisco . . . and further defunding overall of San Francisco public schools.

    Focusing only on the Lowell admission policy will likely be an ill fated adventure toward stabilizing the overall number of students (and funding of the SFUSD) in San Francisco. More needs to be done to broaden the availability and predictability of access to great schools overall in San Francisco.

    What about racial diversity or socioeconomic diversity? What about students that don’t have and “A” or “B” average? Certainly, students deserve second and third chances. Some capable students are just not interested in an academically focused school curriculum. Some students are struggling with dire family mental health or economic situations. I agree that these students deserve access to good schools with invested teachers. They deserve second and third chances. Some might benefit from alternate programming such as good trades training. Overall, I don’t think the SFUSD currently has sufficient resources to deal with these varied challenges. The State of California funding mechanism does not provide sufficient funding to properly maintain this kind of schooling. To make it happen, there will likely be a need for more investment from San Francisco to broaden education opportunities.

    Regarding Lowell, easing the requirement for straight “A”s to instead at least a “B” average would go a long way toward broadening the diversity of the community of students at Lowell. Making this happen would be no small undertaking, but it could be done.

  27. Perhaps reframing Lowell solely as a college prep charter school would allow for student selection based on applicants ‘ performance in specific pre-requisite courses and standardized testing. They would then be a “special “ classification of students.

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