Lowell High School. Photo by Alexia Aubault

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.”

Online postings from Lee Cheng, a Friends of Lowell co-founder and board member of the Lowell Alumni Association

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. 

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

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. 

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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. Question to Joe Eskenazi: Where do your children attend school? Do you intend to send them to SF public schools all the way through 12th grade? If you waver on sending your own kids to SF public schools, you don’t understand at all the level of drama and ineptitude which a typical SF public school family may face. Lowell is but one high school in SFUSD. Instead of admiring what it does well, its detractors should look at how to improve the OTHER SF high schools. The level of venom you spew is dizzying. Signed parent of alumi of Lowell, Balboa, and Washington high schools

    1. Sue — 

      Thanks for the lecture. I have three children, with one in public school and two slated to go as soon as they’re old enough.

      Apropos of nothing, you know my favorite scene in “Silence of the Lambs”? It’s the part where the Scott Glenn character tells the Jodie Foster character that “when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

      Best,

      JE

  2. This is what sickens me:
    “…alums tell me that, with even perfunctory fundraising efforts, the Lowell Alumni Association could amass more than $1 million a year.”
    Many SFUSD PTAs beg and scape to raise $20,000 a year, and serve far needier families. With that kind of largesse, Lowell is barely a public school.

  3. Joe, was almost impressed by your early work on the BOS but this is (as someone more eloquently puts it above) just a lazy opinion piece masking as journalism, and that’s why people for fight to keep academic standards high at Lowell.

  4. “Lowell’s current academic admissions policy is in violation of state law. ”

    THIS should be the end of the discussion. If parents want an exclusive school, they can open a private one. Lowell should not have different admission rules than any other public high school in San Francisco. Typical rich folks raise money to sue, not help anyone.

    1. As opposed to traditional SF orthodoxy, more interested in making sure all the colors are right than in actual outcomes for kids.

    2. Dismantling what generation took to build – a public school often ranked as the top ten high school in the nation – for feel good social politics du jour is a shameful disgrace to those who built it and generations of children who would have benefited. Lowell has dropped from a top ten ranked school to 160+. How does this make anyone feel good?

  5. Thanks for the reminder that any effort opposed to the insanely effective policies and viewpoints of people like Alison Collins MUST have its roots in maga.

  6. Thank you for pointing out Lee Changs involvement in the so-called Friemds of Lowell alumni association. You’ve left out an important name here. Far-right MAGA lawyer, Harmeet Dhillon was the Friends of Lowell’s legal counsel. For folks who don’t know, she was the chosen legal counsel representing Donald Trump in his Jan. 6th subpoena, and involved in high-profile culture wars. No surprise Dhillon is the lead for a lawsuit against the school board in Chico, which claims that schools are “facilitating” gender changes among its students. That should give anyone pause in todays culture and climate of what the GOP is using to gather momentum, Glenn Youngkin style. Grotesque.

    1. The entire hubbub and fight over Lowell ,school name changes and masking/quarantine backlash positively reeks of this. I am not at all shock that there is some relationship to Harmeet Dillon and far right campaigns across the nation to undermined/upend public schools. Dig deeper into the names/backers of similar campaigns across the United States and you will find a veritable smorgasbord of people similarly linked to conservative/maga causes. Above all follow the money.

    2. Same lawyer who is buddies with and represented Kari Lake in AZ, who insists she won election she lost by over 17,000 votes.
      Seems the far right is attempting to take over a San Francisco public school. We need to stop this

  7. Thank you for this call to conscience, Joe. Nowhere are zero-sum arguments more potent than in school admissions because anyone’s gain is demonstrably someone else’s loss. Those who enjoy privilege tend to see action to even the odds as an attack on them, and some try to ensure that the playing field remains tilted in their favor.

  8. I’m so tired of hearing about Lowell. It’s just an overrated high school. I know a few “brown” kids who went there and they hated it. By most accounts Lowell is a hostile school to anyone who is “different.” If Lowell can’t see how dysfunctional they are, then let them stew in their own juices SFUSD is a deeply troubled organization.

  9. I am deeply disappointed by Mission Local generally, with this article as a prime example, in the inability to distinguish journalism from smarmy editorial slant. There in a lot of good information here, but it is embedded in such a snarky, condescending, extraneous style of tone and irrelevant misdirection that the reader has to either hate the subjects in the article or hate the writer for writing it this way. Pro tip: hate the writer for making you filter his nonsense, focus on the information, and ask yourself the questions he should have asked as a journalist and not as an editorialist.

  10. Hopefully common sense prevails and hard working students continue to get rewarded for their work and nothing else. Work ethic has no color. Any parent who doesn’t encourage & help their child to succeed academically is a useless parent. Apart from health issues or other extraordinary reasons, any excuse as to why they don’t do the above is just laziness and lack of interest in their children’s life.

  11. Joe, can you look into why SotA’s student body is twice as white as the rest of the district? Something like that can’t just happen by accident.

    1. Sir or madam — 

      That’s a great suggestion for a story. With that said, Lowell and SoTA are not synonymous. SoTA actually *is* categorized as a specialized school and Lowell is not, meaning it is allowed by state law to use selection criteria (although not academics or athletics).

      Best,

      JE

      1. God if I had a dime for every time I have had to explain this. Honestly it’s a wonder no one has taken it in to their head to sue them. But when they do it’s gonna cost them a lot more than that war chest I can tell you that. Maybe just fight to make AP courses available to all schools?

      2. I doubt anyone seriously believes white people are more artistic than any other race. Yet somehow white students are winning merit-based admissions to SotA at a disproportionate rate, making SotA the whitest high school in SFUSD, by far. A truly equitable admissions process would not produce this result. So what’s going on there?

        1. Or that the white and middle class students of SF have access to arts and arts education and maybe parents who can support arts-based education.

        2. They are not winning spots at a disproportionate rate. Please Google the racial makeup of kids under 18 in San Francisco. You will find that the % of white students at Asawa SOTA roughly correlates with the % of kids under 18 in SF. Keep in mind that many students who apply to the school have attended private K-8.

        3. You don’t know what rate white kids are being admitted to SOTA. A comparison to overall SFUSD high school demographic numbers won’t answer your question as white students are entering the lottery at a lower rate to their actual numbers compared to other racial groups.

          If a “truly equitable admission process” means aligning the student demographic numbers with the general population numbers adjusted for age, which high school would rate better than SOTA?

      3. Maybe somebody should sue over the right of any school to call itself “specialized” as obviously this translates to exclusionary.

  12. These people are heroes. Those idiots on the school board would have been able to continue their reign of terror had the Lowell alumni not stepped in. Then we would still be hearing about our tax dollars wasted on 10-hour meetings about renaming schools.

    I’m not a Lowell alumni, but I fully support them.

    1. I think parents and politicos severely overrate just how salient Lowell admissions was to the recall effort. While Lowell alumni and parents with Ivy League dreams were the LOUDEST voices in the recall effort, only a minuscule portion of the 80-something % of citizens who voted Yes on the recalls had any involvement with Lowell. As you stated, many of the angry alumni don’t even live here.

      Like a lot of parents, I voted for the recall because the schools were closed for 18 months with almost no movement towards opening them safely. The school board focused on trivial items while students missed 5 full quarters of learning. This was frustrating for parents who have friends and peers in other communities that re-opened schools safely in 2020. If it weren’t for the recall election hanging over the heads of the board, schools might not have opened in the fall of 2021 or remained open through the early 2022 omicron surge.

      I sincerely hope that Lowell dumps the testing requirement and remains a rigorous school, but with opportunities for all kids from across the City. But also the Lowell admission process is maybe the 173rd most important problem facing SFUSD, so it’d be good to resolve this and move on.

      1. Agree with some of your sentiments, but when one high school holds 40% of all AP funding, that is an issue.