When two city natives suss each other out, as Carl Nolte wrote back in 1984, the first question is, invariably, “Whereya from?”
And if the answer is “here,” the second question, again invariably, is “Oh yeah? Whereja go to school?”
City natives no longer speak in a patois reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row hobos. But they do still ask the same questions. And, while you can no longer quite so reliably glean someone’s ancestry and upbringing and life story from simply learning where they went to high school, the answer to this question still matters.
As such, it’s notable how many of the Lowell High School alums who sprang into action in 2021, after the San Francisco Board of Education rashly moved to do away with the school’s academic-based admissions criteria, either do not live in San Francisco or do not have children in the public school system.
Certainly, some of this can be chalked up to altruism. But there is also that sense of pride when someone, invariably, asks Oh yeah? Whereja go to school?
The lawsuit brought by Lowell alums in 2021 did, indeed, derail the school district’s move to permanently undo Lowell’s academic entry process. That was because — regardless of one’s thoughts on selective admissions or diversity issues — the school board gratuitously and sloppily and flagrantly violated the Brown Act, which requires open government meetings and proper notice of what’s on the agenda.
So, the school district has already been sued regarding this matter. And it has lost. Which makes the actions taken on Jan. 12 by the Lowell Alumni Association all the more intriguing. The association’s legal committee requested $250,000 to be allocated for potential litigation, ostensibly to stave off attempts to alter the school’s current merit-based admissions policy (which includes both students’ grades and their performance on the Smarter Balanced test, which has been abandoned by the UC system as an unsuitable admissions exam).
There’s a lot going on here, but here’s the Reader’s Digest version: A group of people who are both litigious and focused on preserving Lowell’s status quo — with an expressed aversion for alternative merit-based admissions policies that might do away with a much-maligned standardized test or more heavily factor in diversity issues — has moved to put a goodly sum into a potential litigation fund.
We talked to a number of current and former Lowell Alumni Association board members. Several told me they have little doubt that the group would sue the San Francisco Unified School District if it moves to do away with the present admissions policy — even if other academically selective policies are established in its place.
“We’re watching things closely,” said Lowell Alumni Association president Kate Lazarus. “And nothing is off the table.”
Because the San Francisco Board of Education’s comportment was so abysmal during the early days of the pandemic, it’s easy to overlook how galvanizing a move it was to revoke Lowell’s merit-based admissions policies.
The board’s ham-fisted steps to rename 44 San Francisco schools, which sat empty far longer than those in other districts, elicited national ridicule, as did vice president Alison Collins’ vitriolic Tweets stereotyping Asian Americans and referring to them as “house n—–s” — and her unrepentant subsequent behavior.
That was, as my Uncle Steve would put it, “movie shit.” But the board’s move to do away with Lowell’s admission policies was a tremendous driver of what turned out to be an overwhelmingly successful recall effort. Collins’ offensive tweets were manna from heaven here — Lowell is heavily Asian, and Collins’ behavior stoked cries that she and others were operating with anti-Asian animus.
Among other developments, the elimination of merit-based admissions at Lowell led to the formation of a group called Friends of Lowell, which initiated the successful lawsuit against the district. It may not be entirely fair to say that this is a single-issue outfit, monomaniacally focused on preserving Lowell’s status-quo, but it does seem to have the same fixation on the current admissions policy that Vince Lombardi did on winning.
Meanwhile, the comportment of some Friends of Lowell members, who are now also Lowell Alumni Association board members, has more closely approximated noxious web trolls than the proud examples of merit-based education. Friends of Lowell co-founder Lee Cheng, for example, praised “brave young man” Kyle Rittenhouse upon his acquittal for shooting dead two people in Wisconsin: “Justice is served. Full repudiation of all the apologists for violent thugs attacking people and destroying property in the name of BLM and Antifa.”
Cheng would also see fit to post pictures of what may or may not be Black people stealing from stores and the accompanying text “In Democrat run cities, this is called Equity Shopping.”
So, that’s not subtle. And it will be interesting to see if, moving forward, there is any ideological distinction between Cheng’s Friends of Lowell and the far bigger and better-funded Lowell Alumni Association, because the former has, essentially, taken over the latter.
Two years ago, eight of the Friends of Lowell’s preferred slate of 10 candidates won a spot on the Lowell Alumni Association board. In the vote held on Jan. 19 of this year, nine of 10 did. There are only 32 members of the board, so the Friends of Lowell bloc already constitutes at least 17 seats, a majority. Its members assumed control of the executive board last year.
And, no laws were broken here. Rather, it was a strategic master-class. The Lowell Alumni Association represents tens of thousands of alumni, and its reach and budget is far greater than Friends of Lowell’s, at hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. But alums tell me that, with even perfunctory fundraising efforts, the Lowell Alumni Association could amass more than $1 million a year. The $250,000 that may yet swell the Lowell Alumni Association’s litigation kitty would come from a recent half-million-dollar unrestricted bequeathment, the largest unrestricted bequeathment in the alumni association’s long history.
So, to the victors go the spoils. And the ability to budget and set priorities: While moving to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars into potential litigation safeguarding admissions policies that have led to disproportionately low enrollment among Black and Latinx students, the Lowell Alumni Association recently cut its Diversity Equity and Inclusion committee’s requested allocation in half, from $10,000 to $5,000.
Lowell Alumni Association Executive Director Terry Abad told me that any future lawsuits will require a great deal of discussion among the board. The $500,000 bequeathment that would provide the quarter-million dollars for the litigation fund has not yet been transferred to the alumni association — and, critically, the school district hasn’t yet determined what to do about Lowell’s admissions policies.
This has, for the school district, been a process on par with settling land claims in the Balkans. The SFUSD’s lawyers have, for many years, unambiguously told its school board members that Lowell’s current academic admissions policy is in violation of state law. They did this in both oral and written communications, and were unambiguous in their legal opinion that, if challenged, the district would likely lose.
But, following the successful recall, that admissions policy has been reinstated. And it looked like it might stay for a while. The mayor’s three nominees to the school board all favored this, and this was clearly the desired outcome of most of the hundreds of thousands of registered voters who flocked to the polls to oust the three former board members. It was a much easier political lift to put the city in a tenuous legal position than to cross the Lowell revanchists.
But then, something unexpected happened: Mayoral Board of Education appointee Ann Hsu opined that Black and Latinx students’ struggles were, in large part, due to their deficient home lives. This was ill received; she went from being the likely No. 1 vote-getter to a narrow loser to challenger Alida Fisher.
Fisher has four Black children. She would not appear to be wedded to the status quo at Lowell, a status quo that has resulted in minuscule Black enrollment. There does not presently seem to be a majority on the Board of Education that favors keeping things as they are.
So, the looming possibility of well-funded litigation from an entity now controlled by people with a fixation on preserving Lowell’s status quo is one more complicating factor in a complicated situation.
Forty years ago, Nolte wrote, the answer to Oh yeah? Whereja go to school? could tell you pretty much everything. But those days are gone.
The San Francisco of today is a more difficult place to know.