The Lowell admissions proposal for the 2021-22 year has indeed divided San Francisco. Some embrace a lottery policy for Lowell’s admissions, arguing that all merit-based standards for admissions are inherently racist. Others vigorously defend the existing admissions policy, arguing that the reason Lowell is so highly regarded is precisely because the policy is merit-based. As your article describes, the recent SFUSD Board meetings during which the proposal was debated featured passionate arguments between those on both sides of this issue. But I think it is essential that we distinguish between those who indulged in “name-calling” and “rants” from those (including many eighth grade students) who expressed their views with dignity, thoughtfulness, and respect for those who disagreed with them. I embraced the latter and was appalled by the former, even when their views on the proposal coincided with mine.
But I am not writing to present my views on the new admissions policy for 2021-22. As our principal, Ms. Dacotah Swett, recently reminded Lowell teachers, we “are charged with educating all who walk through our doors, and enter our classrooms, this is our duty.” And whatever admissions policy is in effect at Lowell, I intend to do just that.
I am writing out of grave concern—not about how students are selected to join us at Lowell—but about how the school they are joining is being defined. During the School Board meetings, it was not just Lowell’s admissions policy that was discussed and debated. Lowell itself was on trial. Lowell was persistently identified as a school with a toxic atmosphere, a school where not only racism is rife but where sexual assault and rape define our school culture. Moreover, it became clear that the School Board’s Commissioners not only readily agreed with this blanket description of Lowell, but also believed that Lowell was uniquely corrupted and criminal: while several Commissioners called for a special investigation into Lowell’s toxic culture, they did not call for investigations into any other schools. I would be the first to agree that even one sexual assault involving the Lowell community is too many. That even one racist act on Lowell’s campus is too many. That even one student who feels that Lowell’s environment is hostile must compel us to reach out and help. But there is a vast difference between admitting that Lowell, a school of nearly three thousand students, has suffered—as all schools have suffered—some serious, regrettable incidents and claiming as the School Board’s Commissioners claim that it is the one school in the entire district with an unacceptably toxic culture of racism, sexual violence, and intolerance. I simply don’t recognize the school they are describing as the school where I have taught for over twenty years. And it is hard to see why any child would want to go to the Lowell imagined by our School Board Commissioners, no matter the admissions policy! No, the Lowell I recognize is the Lowell that Sergio Herrera describes in an article he wrote in support, not of a flawed lottery system that itself is now the subject of critical review, but of creating a more enlightened, more affirmative affirmative action policy for Lowell: “changing Lowell’s admissions policy won’t eradicate racism, but it will give a lot of hope to minority parents when they see their child who’s grown up in toxic environments be accepted to such a prestigious school. I know a lot of us at Lowell have parents who are immigrants and I know we remember the joy on their faces once they saw their acceptance letters.”
I do not oppose the idea that we must work hard to make Lowell better. I believe that over the past few years, Lowell has been trying to do just that by making itself more racially sensitive, more committed to preventing sexual misconduct. I have discussed these problems in my own classes and have listened with sadness but also pride as my students have described their own struggles with racism and sexism as well as their courage in confronting these evils. And I agree with Commissioner Collins that it is wrong to denigrate students who do not go to Lowell as “doomed,” “lazy,” or “substandard.” Those who do not go to Lowell are our brothers, our sisters, our neighbors, our friends. To put them down is wrong. Indeed, putting them down empowers those who would seek to not only change Lowell, but abolish it. Calling students who attend other high schools—“doomed, lazy, substandard”—is just as wrong as calling an entire school, with all its complexity, beauty, and shortcomings, “doomed” and irredeemable. The truth is that the problems confronting Lowell are the same problems confronting many high schools across the country. My proposal: let’s end the “name calling.” Instead, let’s start working with each other to make all schools better places for students.