Lowell High School Admissions: Hard Work or a roll of the dice?
The San Francisco School Board proclaimed a false victory this past week as it celebrated the increased diversity at Lowell high school. In its victory lap, it forgot the historic role Lowell has played in San Francisco: to provide a challenging high school experience for high achieving and high potential students.
Solving the longtime controversy over admission to Lowell high school is not just about diversity. Diversity alone is an easy issue to solve. Just replace the existing merit-based admissions system with a “lottery” specifically designed to favor low income and low performing students of color. BINGO. DONE.
The issue is a lot more complicated.
Lowell is recognized as one of the most successful high schools in the country. This is in large part because it admits students who have demonstrated high levels of success in middle and elementary school. The school district has a responsibility to meet the needs of ALL students, and that includes those who need greater academic challenges.
The real issue is how to support those students AND provide a diverse student body. Taking the simple way out and just changing admissions to a lottery falls far short of meeting the needs of all students.
Just as high school students work hard to achieve a goal of post-secondary education, middle (and elementary students) in San Francisco had entry to Lowell as one incentive. The lottery is a great way to increase diversity. But hard work and responsibility in middle school? Not so much.”
Let’s look at the lottery for a moment. The “lottery” is not exactly a game of chance. There are predetermined winners. The district uses something called tiebreakers, preferences used to place students in their requested school when the number of requests for that school is greater than the number of spaces available.
Lowell certainly fits that category. But when applied to Lowell, it specifically gives preference to students who live in areas with the lowest average test scores. It does not look at any indication of whether that student is well prepared to thrive in an academically challenging high school. It is designed to give predominantly needy students living in specified parts of the city and those attending Willie Brown Middle School their choice of high schools, before anyone else.
Let me be very clear about this. I am not speaking against diversity. Far from it. Years ago as chair of the Lowell Admissions committee, I helped develop an admissions plan that specifically included room for students, who, for many reasons, fell just short of meeting the grade and test score criteria of Lowell. It used the following criteria.
- Extenuating circumstances
- Socioeconomic status (self-disclosed)
- School leadership/service
- Demonstrated ability to overcome hardship
- Extracurricular activities (school based)
- Community Service
- Creative abilities in performing and visual arts
- Participation in peer support/mentor
This plan was supported by those who favored affirmative action and those who favored a merit-based school.
Available data collected by the state going back to 2009 shows a steady increase in ethnic diversity at Lowell.
(The Ethnic Diversity Index reflects how evenly distributed these students are among the race/ethnicity categories. The more evenly distributed the student body, the higher the number. A school where all of the students are the same ethnicity would have an index of 0.)
The Diversity Index at Lowell is higher than most of the SFUSD middle schools that send students to Lowell.
The newly applied lottery assignment system, which replaces the use of merit this year, has a number of flaws—not the least of which is taking away the incentive for hard work and responsibility. Just as high school students work hard to achieve a goal of post-secondary education, middle (and elementary students) in San Francisco had entry to Lowell as one incentive. The lottery is a great way to increase diversity. But hard work and responsibility in middle school? Not so much.
The solution is not to fiddle with the lottery system which totally fails to address the needs of high achieving students. A better solution is to create MORE well-prepared students. Too many African American, Latin(x) and Pacific Islander students are struggling.
The school district has created the African American Leadership Initiative, which is showing success in addressing bias, improving instruction and support, and community collaboration. Unfortunately, that has not yet translated into measured academic success. The California School Dashboard shows San Francisco African American students with low performance, lower than the statewide data for comparable students.
Ed-Data shows that for the last five years, nearly 60 percent of African American students were at the lowest performance level on the state literacy tests. They demonstrated limited understanding of adapted grade level content that focuses on much of the basic knowledge and skills, even with extensive support. Only about 5 percent of those students exceeded standards.
This is not a game of either/or. Much more needs to be done to help African American and other students reach their full potential and much more needs to be done to ensure a Lowell admissions policy that addresses both excellence and equity.
This lottery system thumbs its nose at students of all backgrounds who work hard, are responsible and display strong academic achievement and potential. And it thumbs its nose at the hardworking teachers and staff who have helped make Lowell High School one the most outstanding high schools in the nation.
Carol Kocivar is a children’s advocate and lives in the Westside. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org