Lowell High School. Photo by Alexia Aubault

Last week, we published a column publicly revealing what the San Francisco Unified School District and its lawyers have been saying in private for years: The district believes Lowell High School’s prior merit-based admissions policy violated state law, and does not think it could successfully defend it in court. 

While Mayor London Breed will soon name three new Board of Education members, those appointments won’t alter the legal stance of the district’s general counsel, a stance long predating the three board members recalled last month by an overwhelming majority of San Francisco voters. 

Many of those voters were angry about the elimination of Lowell’s merit-based admissions policy, and many apparently believed that the recall was some manner of magic wand to return Lowell to its status quo. So it was no surprise that the reaction to our story was not charitable. If anything, it resembled the first three of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: Denial, anger and bargaining. 

“Depression” and “acceptance” ostensibly come next — but, considering lawyers, politicians, political appointees, angry parents and alums are involved, maybe they don’t. 

In the last week, we’ve talked to more people and obtained more documents and done more reporting. Everything we printed before holds up. So, here it is again: Lowell’s prior, merit-based admissions policy isn’t coming back. That is, unless the Board of Education explicitly ignores the unambiguous advice repeatedly proffered by its legal counsel — both orally and in writing, in numerous closed-door sessions and “anticipated litigation” memos — going back for years and years. In fact, ex-Board of Education members told us that they were informed by prior legal counsel that Lowell’s policy was incompatible with state law, and that was more than a decade ago.

The histrionic response to our story was yet another sad reminder that even well-educated people, including liberals, are increasingly unable to discern journalism from advocacy. The factual assertions in last week’s column — that the district has long believed Lowell’s previous admissions policy was legally vulnerable and an explanation why — are solid. That may not make readers happy, and you may have your own thoughts about the district general counsel’s legal opinions, but yelling at a journalist about it (“denial,” “anger”) is of limited utility.

Lowell and Mission High soccer players during a regular season game, 2012. Photo by Alejandro B. Rosas

The district’s present-day statement regarding the matter is a tantamount admission that it doesn’t believe it could have fended off a legal challenge to the prior Lowell entry policy. 

“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,” wrote SFUSD spokeswoman Laura Dudnick in a statement to Mission Local after I asked about this last month. 

It’s been a while since high school, but we can still do a bit of deductive reasoning here. If the district insists its next policy must abide by this education code, and if this education code “explicitly prohibits” the use of academics as an enrollment criteria, and if Lowell was using them as a criteria before — then it stands to reason that the district is implicitly stating that it believes the prior policy violated this code (which, again, is not surprising, because that’s what it was explicitly stating behind closed doors, going back years and years, both orally and in writing). 

But let’s assume that this is a debatable legal position. It would behoove the district to establish, once and for all, what it can legally do at Lowell and what it cannot. 

In fact, Mission Local has learned that, years ago, the district considered consulting with the Attorney General or a judge about whether Lowell was in compliance. But, ultimately, the district did not do this. Why not? The explanation given by a former school board member was: “What if the answer came back ‘no?’” 

Instead, the district chose to remain in a legal gray area, and pray that nobody sued. 

And nobody did. But that’s no longer an option because, for better or for worse, last year Lowell did away with merit-based admissions. And while that decision was invalidated because of the school board’s gross violations of open meeting laws, the district moved to keep lottery admissions in place through the 2022-23 school year. 

But that also means that a “no” from the state or a judge is no longer nearly as big a deal. It’s not the same thing to be told “what you’re doing is illegal” as it is “That thing you used to do, and aren’t doing anymore? That was illegal.” 

So the district should strongly consider consulting with the state or the courts. Because, when the newly recomposed Board of Education decides what comes next for Lowell, it’d be good to know what, conceivably, could come next.

Having a solid legal footing is a good and necessary first step. And, compared to what comes afterward, it’s a piece of cake: Next comes navigating the minefield of racial politics, tradition, equity, merit and institutionalized racism.  

While the district holds that Lowell’s prior merit-based admissions policy was illegal, that doesn’t automatically mean a potentially legal policy somehow incorporating merit can’t be hammered out. Can San Franciscans sit down and engage in an honest and productive process to determine if that is desirable and what that might look like?  

Or will we engage in the Kübler-Ross stages of San Francisco school politics: denial, anger and bargaining, followed by fulminating and litigation? 

Famed Lowell alum Bill Bixby, left, in My Favorite Martian

So, you remember the part about half a dozen current and former school board members telling Mission Local that, over the course of many years, they were explicitly warned by the district’s general counsel that Lowell’s merit-based admission policy was incompatible with state law,  and that the district would likely lose a legal challenge.

And you remember that the  law in question is California Education Code 35160.5 (b)(2)(B), which the district unambiguously states it must adhere to when setting Lowell’s future enrollment policy. 

But the Lowell Alumni Association produced a legal memo in December with a novel thrust: What if you don’t have to adhere to this education code? What if merit-based admissions is fine and dandy? 

There are two carve-outs to Education Code 35160.5 (b)(2)(B) that defenders of Lowell’s status quo cling to: Gifted and Talented Education programs (GATE) and “specialized” high schools. San Francisco Unified School District lawyers have flatly concluded that Lowell is neither of these, according to multiple sources as well as internal documents obtained by Mission Local. 

While a great many gifted and talented students attend Lowell, a Gifted and Talented Education program is a specific thing involving specific forms and specific categorizations and funding sources. The notion that Lowell was or is a GATE program induced laughter from current and former school board members and district officials; this would appear to be a half-serious semantic game and the equivalent of trying to claim tax deductions by declaring a houseplant as your dependent.  

Lowell, by the district’s own reckoning, is also not a specialized school or program, and never has been. “Specialized schools” aren’t defined within 35160.5, but the state Department of Education lists examples such as adult education, American Indian student programs, charter schools, homeless education, etc.

The Lowell Alumni Association memo doesn’t dwell much on GATE. But it does argue that Lowell is a specialized high school, essentially by dint of its longstanding selective admissions process and its graduates’ history of academic success. 

Now this is an interesting memo, and we should all be proud of Lowell alums like Stephen Breyer (and Bill Bixby!). But this is a curious definition of a “specialized” school. For one thing, Lowell is, by far, the largest public school in the city, which doesn’t fit any conventional definition of “specialized.” 

And, while its prior admissions standards were rigorous and its students generally enjoyed academic success, they were taking the same academic programs offered to pupils at other San Francisco high schools: Washington, Lincoln, Balboa, etc. Like Lowell, these are categorized as “comprehensive” high schools, not specialized. 

There is, in fact, a high school in the city where students do take a specialized program: Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. The curriculum here is specialized: There are both academic and artistic classes. And as a specialized school, SOTA is exempted from 35160.5, and is entitled to use selective admission criteria (But it also warrants mentioning that SOTA’s selection process, an audition, isn’t a measure of “academic or athletic performance,” the criteria forbidden by 35160.5). 

Mission Local has learned that the district is aware of the Lowell Alumni memo and its contentions. And, while the district wouldn’t answer our questions about it, it clearly doesn’t buy the alumni memo’s arguments. The district does not believe that Lowell is specialized, and it does not believe that Lowell is grandfathered or otherwise excused out of complying with 35160.5. That’s easily discernible because, on the contrary, the district insists that this code does apply in the future — and, by extension, applied in the past, too. 

YouTube video

On Facebook, Lowell alums have pondered if their alma mater could preserve merit-based admissions by being converted into a charter school. A very solid Chronicle article noted the possibility of Lowell becoming “a specialized or alternative school with focused or thematic instruction.” 

So: “Bargaining.” 

Transforming Lowell — which, again, is the city’s largest school, with about 2,800 students — into a “specialized” institution would be a haul. It would require new curriculum and new entry requirements and lots of other things that would be challenging to square away before the interim lottery process at Lowell lapses following the 2023 school year. 

But it’s not clear anybody really wants this. Nobody is complaining about Lowell’s curriculum; rather, this seems to be a suggestion that the school should be metamorphosed as a ploy to resurrect its prior admissions system. 

That’s a bit different, and discerning everyone’s actual intent figures to be a challenge moving forward. A positive outcome regarding Lowell will require good-faith participation from all sides.

It’s a lot to ask. It’s easy to foresee plenty of “depression” in the near future. “Acceptance” remains elusive.  


Your contribution is appreciated.

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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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  1. I LOVE this article!!!!
    LOL @ SFUSD teacher… just because it’s witty doesn’t make it biased…but, good to know SFUSD has teachers who assume that
    1) because other schools are racist, Lowell should not be the *only* racist school (LOL what???)
    2) Black/brown kids don’t have the intelligence to know when they are being used (you are denying kids their agency based on the experiences THEY had at school). Just because board members (WHOSE JOB IS TO SERVE THE STUDENTS TOO) may have guided them on something THEY wanted to do
    3) so now we are using outliers… KIDS WHO WANT TO GO TO LOWELL, WILL HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY. NO ONE IS BEING FORCED. If anything, do some research or IDK talk to the students you *hopefully* care about, and you’ll see that many who have the *merit* to attend Lowell don’t want to because of the unwelcoming culture there.

    anyways…those are just quick points, I won’t reply to any responses because I dont have to prove anything to you imbeciles.

    I just came on here to say, there are plenty of AMAZING and wonderful teachers, programs, social-justice oriented public High schools that aren’t Lowell in SF. Hopefully people will stop believing in ranking sites, that are all based primarily on standardized testing, which many universities dont even require anymore.

    to think, there are “prestigious” colleges that want kids that have critical thinking skills rather then robots who can memorize answers to tests….

    1. LOL @ Dahlia. That was a really good example of the strawman argument. Thank you for distorting and exaggerating my points and then attacking the distortion.

      1) My point stands. The justification for changing Lowell’s admission process was racism and equity. I argued, providing evidence, that the numbers have less to do with “unwelcoming” culture than they do with travel issues.

      2) I never said that “black/brown students don’t have the intelligence to know when they are being used”. You did. I stated that the entire walkout was orchestrated by a board member to bolster their political clout. The students weren’t guided. They were led. And yes – any child – can be easily mislead. In fact, there’s strong research to suggest that this is true. Look up: “Stanford Researchers Find Students Have Trouble Judging Credibility Information Online.” There are dozens of similar replicable studies dating back to the 80s, if you want to do some research. Again, my point stands.

      3) I believe you are misusing the word “outliers” – persons or things differ significantly from other observations. Not sure what you’re getting at here.

      BUT, one thing is true: I did my research. You did not. And never suggest that I don’t care about my students. Nothing is more important to me than their education, welfare, and happiness. Thanks for your quick points.

  2. As I mentioned in the other thread, Whitney High School in Cerritos uses academic performance, through the standardized test they give every student, in its admissions process. The process is objective and based on rankings at their existing school, which provides opportunities for diversification while not allow academically unprepared students to fail. Apparently no parents have called over to Cerritos to see how they do things. https://www.whitneyhs.us/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=1260134&type=d&pREC_ID=1429686

  3. Sir, I don’t have a beef. I have an opinion that this article is biased against Lowell. The five-stages of grief analogy alone strongly suggests it. The instances I brought up are absolutely relevant. Accusations of racism were absolutely the background for this decision; I’m reading nothing into it. As for your bias, well, you wrote the article. Can one assume that if an article is biased, its author might be as well?

    Very disappointing. Again, thanks for the better journalism with the paycheck article. This piece was biased and poorly researched. I’m so sorry you don’t like Lowell.

  4. Joe Eskanazi, thank you for your recent article “SF teachers’s checks caught in recent payroll snafu”. With journalism like that, one can see why you won an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

    One wonders, then, why this piece is so clearly biased. You seem to delight in poking fun at the supporters of Lowell’s somewhat-merit-based enrollment system. How is this considered “journalism”?

    One also wonders, given that you’re a native-born SF person, why you haven’t dug a little deeper into the history of accusations of racism at Lowell, particularly two items:

    1) Years ago, a district task force asked African American students and their families why they didn’t apply to Lowell. The unexpected response wasn’t racism, micro-aggression, or feeling out of place. It was distance. Lowell’s in the extreme SW of the city, and they stated that their commute would have been too long. Does this mean racism doesn’t exist at Lowell, or that some AA Lowell students don’t feel alienated or left out at Lowell? Nope. But how do they feel at other schools? Is there racism and racialized incidents at other schools? Why label Lowell as racist or enabling racism, but not other schools?

    2) The first student walk out organized by the Black Student Union and La Raza, a few years ago (2016) wasn’t spontaneous. It was carefully orchestrated by certain board members – clearly so. The students were invited by the board members to meetings, where they hashed out their strategy and the media response. All of it was pre-planned by adults with an ideological agenda. One could argue that they used AA and Latino Lowell students to further an ideological agenda, or personal political one. No?

    3) Imagine for a moment, that a student – any student, of any race or ethnicity – did no work in 6th grade or were truant. Were they held behind? Were they given remediation? No, there is no remediation and they were passed to 7th grade. Repeat this behavior for 7th grade and 8th grade. Now they’re passed into 9th grade. Their parents want them to go to Lowell because it’s a “good school”. They get in. Now they’re years behind behind their peers and their teachers will struggle to meet the needs of students functionally operating at 6th grade level and students who are ready for college-level or even graduate-level work. Do you think they might feel alienated? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? This is the experience of many students who got into Lowell and were not prepared for the academic rigor. I’m not sure that it can be argued that this means that Lowell is racist.

    Mr. Eskanzi, there’s more here than meets the eye. There’s a lot of politics that has nothing to do with racism or equity. Are you willing to do that work, to uncover the uncomfortable, messy truth, or just hop on the easy to research (one-click) band-wagon and exercise your own anti-Lowell biases?

    1. Sir or madam — 

      As made resplendently clear in this article, for even the sloppiest of readers, your beef is not with me. Your beef is with the district counsel’s interpretation of state law. And, assuming that interpretation is deemed correct, your beef is with state law.

      The instances you are bringing up are not germane to this story. You are reading elements into the story that are not there, just as you are reading elements that aren’t there into my “bias.”

      Thank you for reading,


    2. SFUSD parent of an early ed student at a school in the Mission here. I graduated from a public HS with many notable alumni, including a former Sec of State. I took 8 AP classes in HS and scored college cred for all of them. I’m college educated, solidly middle class, and already assume that my kid is college-bound by default. I’m white. I provide that bio to counter the notion that anything other than full-throated support for Lowell indicates unfair bias. I should at least be planning for my kid to apply to Lowell some day, right? Well, wrong.
      A commute of 53 minutes by bus (not including waiting, or the fact that we’re talking about muni estimates) renders Lowell less accessible for my family than a private high school closer by. Oakland is easier to get to than Lowell.
      As arguments about the “Lowell issue” are traded, I’m flabbergasted that the geography issue is always brushed aside with publications like the New Yorker noting that a single bus line was “improved” to help with access issues. So at some point, the commute was worse for some neighborhoods than an hour???
      While the historic location of the campus can’t be helped, I haven’t been able to find evidence that the Lowell community has tried to share their recipe for success, expand their program or advocate for increased access with the opening of more campuses. Is it that the underlying appeal is exclusivity? (And if rarity is the secret ingredient, might I suggest issuing diplomas as NFTs?) Why would I be biased if I don’t fight for a school that was never really available to my family and neighbors? Why is it biased if a missionlocal reporter covers issues from a Mission District perspective?
      My kid will be fine whatever the options are, buoyed by my own privilege and income. Their classmates who are bright, sweet, enthusiastic and demographically very different than my kid need access to great secondary education and a pipeline to it. Physical access. Is it really a meritocracy if a significant number of families rule out applying on logistics alone?
      The entire tax base of San Francisco funds Lowell, so if the Lowell community wants all of us to fight for it, give us a real reason. Isn’t expecting some specific kids to ride a bus an hour to Lowell, the same as just expecting picky middle class parents to pay their own way to an exclusive school, move to the suburbs, or pull up their sleeves and invest in all schools?

      1. As a Lowell parent who lives in Bernal/Outer Mission, I agree with your comments.

        By the way, there are a number of students at Lowell who’s families live in the Mission, Glen Park, Bernal, the Excelsior and the Bayview.

        For starters, I agree that the city bus route to Lowell is entirely unworkable in the morning. The city bus is more workable after school for children to take on their way home. My daughter has taken this route many times. However, during the winter months, it gets dark at around 5pm. If a child is doing an afterschool activity, it is not so workable to be taking a bus home in the evening after dark.

        It is possible to drive by car to Lowell from the Mission in about 25 minutes. The route is San Jose Ave -> 280 -> Alemany Blvd -> Brotherhood Way -> Lake Merced Blvd.

        I looked at Phillip and Sala Burton Academy’s and Balboa High’s AP offerings. They are quite good. I think both of these high schools could benefit from further investment to increase the number of students taking and succeeding in AP classes.

        On Mission High School’s website, I could not find any information about Advanced Placement classes. I am not sure if they have any. I also noticed recently that Mission High School students have quite low acceptance rates into the University of California system.

        I would comment that as a resident of the south east area of San Francisco, I feel underserved quite broadly. Beyond schools, there are other forms of neglect. For instance, I once had to start my own blog and take photos just to get a disintegrated sidewalk next to a local green space repaired. I had been trying to work with my local supervisor and DPW for years and had been told “there was no funding” to fix this dangerous sidewalk. It is in a high foot traffic area and biking corridor and had been neglected for more than twenty years.

        The situation in the south east of the city regarding schools is quite complex. It doesn’t help that so many feeder schools to the high schools have had, since the 2008 financial crisis, high teacher turnover due to layoffs.

  5. As a 32-year resident of SF, tax paying citizen, with no kids in the system, I would like my tax dollars to support open enrollment so that every child has the same opportunity to gain attendance. If the real problem is an imbalance of quality, I would like my tax dollars go to correct the imbalance. Public systems, in my, opinion should serve the entire constituency at the same level. I want to support every child/student getting a quality education, or at the very least the opportunity to do so. Although I have an idealistic point of view, I don’t have any of my own in the education system, yet I am still required to tax up like everybody else. I’m OK with that because I believe in quality education for all. Thanks for listening.

  6. The solution is smaller class sizes and better pay and incentives for teachers.

    We also need classes in media literacy, financial literacy and critical thinking. Even for the adults! 🙂

  7. @Bill Bixby

    “Believe it or not, students that attend high schools besides Lowell get into good colleges and have successful careers. Some of them even have successful careers without attending college. Can you believe that?!”

    Yes, many students from other high schools besides Lowell get into good colleges and have successful careers. Here are the numbers for students that were accepted to the UCs from the larger San Francisco high schools in 2021:

    Lincoln: 300 applied, 191 accepted, 64% acceptance rate
    Balboa: 123 applied, 77 accepted, 62% acceptance rate
    Galileo: 210 applied, 164 accepted, 78% acceptance rate
    Washington: 242 applied, 163 accepted, 67% acceptance rate
    Lowell: 598 applied, 445 accepted, 74% acceptance rate
    SOTA: 136 applied, 95 accepted, 70% acceptance rate
    Phillip and Sala Burton Academy, 110 applied, 92 accepted, 84% acceptance rate

    Of the larger San Francisco high schools, Lowell and Galileo have the higher UC acceptance rates. Interestingly, Phillip and Sala Burton Academy, in the south east corner of the city, has a high UC acceptance rate:


    For a smaller school, it offers a reasonable list of AP classes:


  8. All the white mommies and daddies are parents at private schools here. It’s really funny that people are so mad about Lowell. You might not like it, but Lowell graduates are more impressive than other students. You might not like to read that. Think about it next time a loved one gets cancer. Who are you relying on to cure rare cancers? Who are you relying on to design your cities or to perform structural engineering tasks for your buildings or to write beautiful verses that you will quote on your wedding day? You are disgusted by intellect but rely on it. The school produced THREE noble prize winners you stupid, stupid people.

  9. If you take the top 5% of every middle school and put them in a high school those students are going to be successful no matter what. It’s not the academic rigor at Lowell that’s making these students successful. These students were already successful. Also, some of the worst teachers I’ve ever met went on to teach at Lowell. You know why? The students will do whatever you throw at them. That’s not rigor. That’s laziness.

    1. Wow, it seems like the anti-Lowell contingent is out in force. In my limited experience of Lowell as a parent of a student at Lowell, the majority of teachers there are excellent. I would imagine that there are also excellent teachers at other high schools. Over the years, I’ve heard about excellent teachers at Mission High, Balboa, Washington, SOTA, Galileo, and Lincoln. But because of the way that funding has been set up, schools that offer fewer AP classes get less funding. And funding does affect the quality of the classroom experience, especially where students need extra tutoring. Saying that teachers at Lowell are not excellent teachers is a red herring and a false statement.

  10. The solution is simple and obvious: turn Lowell into a charter school, whereby it becomes a “specialized school”, and restore the merit-based admissions policy.

    1. Turning Lowell into a charter school school won’t solve the larger problem of lack of breadth of AP programming in our other schools. Read the New Yorker Magazine article:


      “Middle-class parents told me how stuck they felt. “Private school was never an option for us,” an Oxbridge graduate who runs an events business said. His daughter had been a middle-school valedictorian and aspired to go to Lowell, but didn’t make it past the lottery. He and his wife, both of whom worked full time, couldn’t afford private school: applying cost a hundred dollars per application, and that was just the start. “It’s basically a rich person’s game,” he said.”

      Basically, there are not enough public high school slots in San Francisco for students that want access to a breadth of AP classes. Galileo, Balboa, Mission High, Washington etc., don’t offer as many AP classes as Lowell.

      It would be interesting to know how many San Francisco eighth graders who have a “B” average or higher apply to Lowell and are rejected. The reason I am interested in knowing this is that I am quite sure that at least half of this particular cohort of eighth graders could have done well at Lowell. Likely, many of these students with above average, but not stellar grades in middle school, have aspirations to go to the University of California or other similarly placed universities. Once this cohort of students is rejected from Lowell, I suspect many of their families will make the decision to leave San Francisco (if only temporarily), so their children can attend a school with AP classes and good university acceptances elsewhere. The effect of this will be to continue to wear away at the overall number of students in the SFUSD. As the pattern of lack of access to high schools with a breadth of AP classes continues, families will leave well before their children reach middle school.

      Of course, continuing to lose students will mean continuing to lose funding. And continuing to lose funding will mean a downward spiral for all schools . . . including Lowell.

      1. I don’t understand your obsession with AP classes.

        You do know that college admissions do not take into account classes that are not offered at a student’s high school, right? For instance, a college cannot “ding” a student for not taking a AP class that is not offered at their high school.

        1. AP classes have a higher GPA weight than other classes. So doing well in an AP class increases GPA, which increases the likelihood of being accepted at universities.

          APs also give students a leg up in university. Students who have covered AP classes in high school can then skip the introductory classes in university and instead launch into advanced classes. With APs, students can lighten their university load to graduate early, lighten their load, or take more advanced classes. This is particularly important for low income students, who might have to work during university or who want to accelerate their graduation. Student debt, after all, is now a major crippler of upward mobility.

          AP programs are highly structured and well recognized programs. Many universities do look preferentially at students who have taken AP classes. In addition to the AP program, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program is another program that is viewed favorably by many universities.

          The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance, tracks long term success in their programs and has correlated that success to having succeeded in courses like the AP and IB courses.

          1. All true except college admissions look at student academic performance through the lens of what is being offered at the school they attend. So, if there are no AP classes being offered at a student’s high school, a student with a gpa of 4.0 will have just as good of a chance of getting into a college as a student that attends a high school that offers multiple AP classes, has taken AP classes, and has a gpa over 4.0. College admissions is not just based on gpa.

            Also, all high school students have access to dual enrollment classes which are free to SFUSD students and provide both a credit AP bump and college credit. In fact, many AP students pass AP classes but don’t receive college credit because they don’t score high enough on the AP exam. With dual enrollment, students are guaranteed college credit if they pass the class.

            Believe it or not, students that attend high schools besides Lowell get into good colleges and have successful careers. Some of them even have successful careers without attending college. Can you believe that?!

  11. Joe,

    Could you give a little primer on why exactly 35160.5 sought to outlaw academic merit-based schools in California (and not art-based schools, for example). I’m a bit behind on the politics.

  12. Hah hah. The gloating over this coming from the disgruntled Left that never seemed to get the fact that SF BoE / SFUSD had become a national joke for so many more reasons than Lowell is incredible.

    SF politics is such a disaster on all sides that every critique comes with a cry of racism or “GOP conspiracy” when it runs counter to most extreme and evidence-free ‘Democratic Socialist’ dogma. I’m an actual liberal and I can’t get my head around some of this. How about the exaggerated success the school district claimed from its seven-year experiment overhauling its high school math curriculum – i.e. putting all students on the same math track until the 10th grade aka delaying Algebra 1 for ALL students by one year? Bizarrely, this extremely exaggerated success story is now informing CA state education policy. Or the meandering and incoherent plans to rename Washington High School launched by knucklehead Matt Haney that then snowballed into a clown car of Wikipedia-sourced stupid? Or Alison Collins $87 million lawsuit against her own BoE board members? There is plenty of incompetence to go around, so spare us the ‘time to move on’ lecture.

    The Left lobbied to get rid of the SATs…now they want to get rid of AP classes in public schools. I’ll tell you where the ‘conspiracy’ is: it’s to keep the average public school kid out of elite schools and undereducated. WTF is that?

    It would be great if the overall trajectory of education and, more broadly, public policy in SF changed as a result of this recall but we all know that the arc of history in San Francisco politics bends toward the trash bin. So good luck, dummies…this is your mess and you will continue to wallow in it.

  13. The recall of the incompetent school board members should be taken as a turning point to drastically improve governance and district performance as a whole – and not devolve into single issue around Lowell admissions. Increasing SFUSD performance will reduce the need for Lowell to be ‘different’..

  14. I just wish SFUSD would do something to make all schools in the city desirable.

    The fight for APs is important because currently with UC and state schools are no longer taking SATs. GPA is really, really important. I don’t like it, but honors and APs help with GPA. Everyone needs to understand this point. SFUSD grads needs to get what they need to attend state universities from their public schools.

    Add water, float boats. Find holes, plug ‘em up. Use actual, easily available peer reviewed research to guide decisions. Know what is happening outside the SF bubble.

    Maybe our BOE needs to be appointed and not elected, getting some actual experienced people into the roles instead of policial climbers and ideologues.

    Thanks for your reporting Joe. Not shooting the messenger, but I totally understand the flap.

    Former SFUSD teacher
    Current literacy coach on a sliding scale to SFUSD students
    Mom to former SFUSD students, both in private high schools

    1. Thanks! Agree. APs will matter more than ever going forward. And it’s not just getting accepted. APs help with succeeding in the first several years of university.

  15. My sincere congratulations on a beautifully researched and written piece. I’m sorry people allow their emotions to cloud their judgment. Keep up the good work.

  16. Excellent article. I suspect I speak for lots of present and former San Franciscans in saying I always assumed that of course Lowell was a Gifted and Talented School. The fact that it was not but the people who ran it kind of wanted it to be one on a de facto rather than a de jure way and nobody wanted to seek legal advice because they were afraid of the answer they might get is sadly unsurprising to anyone who knows how life in The City so often works.

  17. Is the ultimate takeaway “two wrongs don’t make a right”?

    If Lowell’s admission policy was in violation of the rules — it begs the question if correction of said policy was still a higher priority than say improving educational outcomes city-wide? It feels like the issues raised in this article would probably be fairly non-contentious in an environment with well-functioning schools, but in the opposite environment it’s perceived at the destruction of an educational oasis.

    Great write-ups Joe, I’ve learned a lot. Full disclosure lest anyone asks (ha ha): No kids in SFUSD

  18. Correction:

    “I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to deduce that going to a straight admissions policy at Lowell . . .”

    Should read:

    “I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to deduce that going to a straight *lottery* admissions policy at Lowell . . .”

  19. In the above article, it states:

    “And while its prior admissions standards were rigorous and its students generally enjoyed academic success, they were taking the same academic programs offered to pupils at other San Francisco high schools — Washington, Lincoln, Balboa, etc. Like Lowell, these are categorized as “comprehensive” high schools, not specialized.”

    To my knowledge, and one would know this if they had dialed into the last SFUSD Board Meeting, the above statement is not entirely correct.

    Washington, Lincoln, Balboa, etc. have fewer AP classes than Lowell. In fact, Lowell has the highest number of AP classes in the entire United States. I don’t know the exact proportion of AP classes offered at Lowell versus versus Washington, Lincoln, Balboa, etc., but it came up in the board meeting. Here again, it would be important to dig into the numbers.

    The fact is that the state (or the federal government) pays more to the SFUSD for successful completion of AP classes. It is not enough that these AP classes are just offered. Students have to succeed in this classes for the funding to be received.

    Regardless of the current legality or not of the Lowell admissions policy, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to deduce that going to a straight admissions policy at Lowell will reduce the number of students who can succeed at AP classes. The effect will then be that Lowell will then offer fewer AP classes and will receive less funding.

    Regardless of the legalities of the various possible future Lowell admissions policies, if one cares about school funding broadly across SFUSD high schools, the goal should be to increase the number of students who can succeed in AP classes in all San Francisco public high schools.

    One thing for sure that won’t do this is to continually lay off teachers in elementary and middle schools in the south east part of the city. This came up in the last board meeting. Apparently, under the proposed lay offs, many schools in the south east part of the city will lose a significant proportion of their teaching staff. Each time this happens, it devastates morale and the quality of teaching at these schools. It has happened at least three times in the last fifteen years.

    Meanwhile, many clueless (or lazy, or malicious) policy makers, and some journalists, continue to think that the only problem with these schools in the south east is that affluent families won’t attend them because they are elitist or “racist”. I can still remember Amy Graff, now news editor at SFGATE, ten or so years ago preaching on a blog she created that middle class parents should send their kids to these stripped-of-teachers-demoralized schools in the south east to “fix them”. Meanwhile, Graff’s kids didn’t go to schools in the south east. She cozied up to the “right people” and got her kids a good school assignment. This pattern of journalistic glossing over of underlying structural problems in the SFUSD and cozying up to the “right people” is a now all too familiar pattern for me.

    I am not with the dunces that want to make Lowell an “elite”, charter or magnate school. But I am also not with the other dunces that continue to ignore the long term problems that continue to defund, de-teacher, and depopulate our other (non-Lowell) schools.

    1. >Meanwhile, many clueless (or lazy, or malicious) policy makers, and some journalists, continue to think that the only problem with these schools in the south east is that affluent families won’t attend them because they are elitist or “racist”.

      You really should read Class Action: Desegregation and Diversity in San Francisco Schools by Rand Quinn.

      You’re not going to like what you’re going to see.

      1. Thanks for pointing me to this definitive analysis on the many attempts to desegregate San Francisco public schools. I ordered it and can’t wait to read it.

    2. For someone who brags about how much time you spend at BoE meetings, you don’t really seem to know much about how SFUSD operates. Layoff notices are issued strictly by seniority, due to union contracts. Schools in the southeast are typically filled with more recent teachers, and are harder to staff,especially as more experienced or tonger tenured teachers move to less challenging schools (like Lowell) when they get a chance. This sucks but has nothing to do with Lowell admissions policy. And many of those layoffs likely won’t happen, but they are legally mandated to send out notices in the spring before their budget is finalized. There are probably lot the District could do to address this issue (higher pay, retention incentives, overall more resources for those schools), but from my perspective the district leadership and unions pay lip service to equity and don’t actually make the hard choices to make that happen. But that is still not connected to question if the Lowell admission process is legal. and frankly, any effort to remake Lowell or litigate the question will take resources away from the very schools you seem to care about.

      1. I’m well aware that it is the seniority mechanism of the teacher’s union that leads to a disproportionate number of lay offs in schools in the south west of the city.

        The frequent layoffs in these disadvantaged schools does demoralize the student populations in these schools. That was clearly mentioned in the last board meeting. And if students who are already economically disadvantaged are then confronted with schools who are frequently pillaged of their teachers, yes, they will be further disadvantaged and will not be in line for success in middle school. Thus, regardless of whatever admissions policy is established at Lowell, these students, once they have fallen behind in middle school, will not be able to take the classes in high school that would get them into the University of California system.

    3. “The fact is that the state (or the federal government) pays more to the SFUSD for successful completion of AP classes. ”

      I can’t seem to find a source for either state or federal funds($600) for AP exams outside of reimbursement of “some” exam costs to lower-income students. CA had a policy that ended in 2013 ($48 to $70 per exam).

      There is however a new A-G Improvement grant this year, which SFUSD plans to allocate $1,000,000 for test fees for ” students who qualify for free/reduced and unduplicated pupils ” . This is a one-time grant.

      The federal government does provide funding for school districts under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Some of these funds could be used for AP exam fees, but it doesn’t look like AP funding is a required use of those funds.

      So it appears that the $600/exam AP exam reimbursement/funding that SFUSD was providing to schools was an SFUSD/UESF policy mainly using LCFF unrestricted general funds.

    4. Also, you’re wrong about AP classes -extra money from AP doesn’t come from the states or dlfeds. As a Feb 22 article in the Chron states, the extra money for AP “prep” time for teachers comes from the District, as part of past union contracts. Facing a huge budget shortfall, the unions and the District agreed to cut out that paid extra time for teachers for one year, in order to pay for teacher raises and reduce layoffs. Most other districts don’t offer extra paid prep time. AP classes will only be cut if school sites and their teachers decide they can’t offer as many classes without the extra prep time. And just because Lowell offers more AP classes than any other school doesn’t make it special – it’s the biggest HS in the district, and it offers many of the same general ed classes the other “comprehensive” high schools do. Lots of kids don’t take APs, or only take a few, just like at Bal, Wash, Lincoln, etc.

      1. Fine. The extra funding comes from the district. Not the state or federally. But there is extra funding for teaching AP classes. I definitely heard that mentioned in the last meeting. I think it was, in fact, Alison Collins who mentioned this.

        A lot of assumptions and defensiveness here . . . I never said that Lowell was a better school. What I said was that Lowell provides more AP classes than any other San Francisco public high school. And given the high number of applications for Lowell, it appears that many students want to take these AP classes.

      2. Just read this in the recent New Yorker article about Lowell:

        “Lowell is one of the more middle class of the large San Francisco public high schools: thirty-three per cent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared with sixty per cent at Balboa High School and sixty-two per cent at Galileo. It also has, by some measures, big coffers. Public schools are awarded six hundred dollars for each A.P. test taken, and Lowell offers thirty-one A.P. courses. The cash is supposed to pay for extra prep time for A.P. teachers, but what’s left over supports other staffing: Peer Resources, tutoring, arts faculty, and a rich catalogue of language instruction. This produces an upward spiral. Kids who applied because Lowell had a lot to offer take the A.P. courses, and the tests bring funding to make Lowell a school with a lot to offer. ”


  20. Thanks for this great coverage. RASOTA could also use an overhaul of their admissions policies: what they do now is racist and leads to a racial hostile environment. It is possible to have a particular focus and structure AND be a lottery system. It would more fair to all, and more appropriate for the children who are considering attending.

  21. On the topic of the disconnectedness on the issues that confront our San Francisco public schools, I’ve noticed that in many cases, parents with kids in private or religious schools often try to inject themselves into policy discussions about SFUSD public schools. Often, since these parents have not themselves had their children in the SFUSD system, they do not understand the detailed underlying issues that confront our public schools. In that vein, Joe, I think you should state publicly as to whether or not your children attend schools in the SFUSD .

    1. It is totally irrelevant where Joe’s kids go to school. I am appalled by the suggestion that after two heavily researched and documented articles, this kind of nonsense can be raised. He is not an advocate insinuating his way into a debate — he is a journalist reporting the best he can on an issue of city-wide importance and doing a fair better job than his counterparts on larger media outlets. Commenters should read the article and reply to the content rather than making ad hominem remarks about the writer (or anyone else)

      1. I don’t agree.

        Unless you have actually had a child in the SFUSD, and closely followed SFUSD Board meetings over the years, it is unlikely that you would understand what actually ails our public school system.

        1. Marnie — 

          Mark is right. You have no right to demand any information about me. But, if it matters, I have a child in the public school system and two more on the way. I understand the travails of a public school parent. I also understand the travails of a journalist confronting pervasive media illiteracy.



    2. I’ve seen this attitude from a lot of parents, and it’s pretty appalling.

      I don’t have kids. But I am entitled to a vote in the matter, and my vote means as much as any San Franciscan. To wit, the 2018 elections for the respective board members, and indeed the entire recall, relied on people exactly like me.

      It’s safe to say that your assertion that people without kids in SFUSD are unfamiliar with its woes is also a poor assumption.

      I’m someone who votes for every seat on the ballot and does their homework, and I’m far from unique in this city. I also have immediate family and lifelong family friends who’ve taught in two bay area school districts, including SFUSD for a combined excess of 100 years.

      Hell, I went through a similar drama that reached national headlines with my own high school elsewhere in the bay area. Their novel approach was to try and secede and create a new district with just that high school, if you’re looking for new crazy ideas.

      The policy was harmful, and I’m glad it’s gone. Welcome to a more fair playing field. If you don’t know why it matters, go talk to the teachers. They know.

  22. As I stated last time around, then the state law needs to change or Lowell needs to be categorized as a gifted / charter / magnate school. SF should have a merit based school for gifted kids. Every major city has one (or more).Even my nephew in Delaware goes to a gifted public school that you have to test into.

    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. Rich kids have the option of private school. All you’re really doing by eliminating merit admissions at Lowell is making sure gifted poor kids get the shaft.

    1. >teaching to the lowest common denominator

      You know who uses that exact phrase?

      Ayn Rand.

      To argue that we should strip education funding from handicapped and mentally ill people in our society that helps them live a fruitful life.

      Public schools have a purpose to educate “the lowest common denominator”, as of all citizens.

      Ironically, you also mention the “poor gifted kids”, which are commonly regarded as “the lowest common denominator” in public schools, no matter gifted or not.

      So sincerely, I think you’re just making excuses to do the opposite purpose, to disenfranchise.

      And it’s an old argument throughout the history of school segregation.

      1. Got it. You subscribe to the “everyone who doesn’t agree with me is a racist” progressive school of thought. Seems pointless to have a discussion with folks like that, but consider for a moment that it might be possible to (1) not be a racist and (2) believe that there should be both schools/programs for the gifted as well as schools/programs for kids with special needs.

  23. For all of us who have gazed upon Lowell’s admission process and asked “How is that still legal” these articles are awesome.

  24. Joe,

    Just for the record, my daughter is about to graduate from Lowell. I am not posting about the Lowell admission policy because I am going through the five stages of grief. Smirk. Actually, I am posting because I believe in excellent public school education. I don’t believe in elitism. I didn’t even grow up in San Francisco. I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia which has many excellent public high schools as good as Lowell. Not one school, but about four or five public high schools like Lowell. And the other highs schools there are very good as well.

    We can all dance around the issues and not dig into them, but focusing only on the admissions policy at Lowell will do little to increase the number of disadvantaged kids in this that are accepted into the type of universities that you and I attended.

    The board for years hasn’t dug into the underlying issues of why disadvantaged kids are stuck in not so great high schools in San Francisco. And it shows by the exodus of families from San Francisco and the lack of diversity in its schools.

    1. Lowell is a bellwether, but the policy being scrutinized is a state policy. UC admissions have also changed policy by doing away with standardized tests as an entry criteria. Collectively, these shifts should do a lot to change the number of disadvantaged kids that get into top UC schools.

      1. Even if the need for the SAT has been done away with, I suspect that the University of California system will still look preferentially on kids that have done well in AP classes. Students that don’t have these classes will be disadvantaged. And even if students are admitted to the UCs without AP classes, they will be at a disadvantage as they confront the more difficult material in the first few years within the UC system. True, some private schools like Lick-Wilmerding have done away with AP classes. But they are still teaching difficult material even if they are not teaching the AP curriculum exactly. I don’t think that can be said for public schools that have narrow (or no) AP offerings.

  25. Academic mediocrity is good , in our world today . Academic excellence is ‘ racist ‘ !? I don’t think that even Karl Marx would go for this ..