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What we should be fighting for—Letter from a Lowell (and Mission) High School parent

As you may have heard, the SFUSD Board of Education is considering a change to Lowell’s regular enrollment policy due to COVID and a lack of grades and test scores. We are doing this with the understanding that it’s much easier for all concerned to allow students to apply using the regular enrollment process for one year rather than try to figure out an alternate method of conducting an already questionable enrollment system during a pandemic, staff is recommending this policy shift as a temporary solution which will allow students grace as we all navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and crisis distance learning.

I think my colleagues on the Board would likely agree, we would much rather focus our meeting time discussing reopening schools and improving distance learning, and supporting families during a pandemic. That said, it is enrollment season, so the issue must be addressed.

If you’ve been following me on FaceBook (or Twitter) you will note that most of my posts have not been focused on the actual enrollment policy. Rather, they’ve been focused on the tone of discussion and underlying assumptions around this topic. (I’ve reposted a call to action here.)

Recently, an SFUSD parent educator reached out to share some thoughts on the controversy. With his permission, I am sharing his thoughts below.

What we should be fighting for.

by Matt McDonnell, SFUSD parent and educator

“I have two children attending public high schools in San Francisco: one is at Mission (where I have been part of the faculty for over two decades), the other is at Lowell.

I have long found two things about Lowell to be problematic. The first is that admissions decisions are made in a way that consistently produces inequitable outcomes along racial and ethnic lines. I did some statistical analysis comparing the demographic makeup of SFUSD High Schools with over 1,000 students to the demographic makeup of the district as a whole.  By a wide margin, the two schools that diverged the most from representing the racial/ethnic makeup of the district were Lowell and Mission.  

The two largest demographic categories in the school district are Asian and Hispanic/Latinx, and it should surprise no one that these populations, in particular, are drastically over or under-represented at these two schools – nor should I need to tell anyone in which direction the difference in representation lies. (In case this is important to anyone reading this, we are an ethnically diverse family, and my children share both Asian and Latinx heritage.) 

Black students make up a much smaller percentage of district enrollment (mirroring the shrinking Black population of SF that is a whole other topic that needs to be taken seriously), but even with such small overall numbers, the difference in representation at Lowell and Mission follows a predictable trend, with numbers at Lowell about a third of the overall district percentage, and numbers at Mission about twice the overall district percentage.

As an aside, it is telling that the SFUSD high school with over 1,000 students that hewed most closely to the demographic makeup of the district was a high school where students are assigned by lottery and was also the school that had the most requests per available seat of any high school last year: Lincoln. If nothing else, we can see that it is possible for a lottery system to produce equitable results in a school that is highly sought after.

The second thing I find to be very problematic about Lowell is the insistence that a school like Lowell needs to exist at all.  You may notice that I didn’t mention white students at all so far. Here’s what I think is the most important piece of data about white SFUSD students: they are missing.  Non-Hispanic whites make up the single largest demographic category in San Francisco at around 40% of the population. The percentage among SFUSD students, however, is around 15%.  Where are those kids?  Some portion of that can perhaps be explained away by there being larger numbers of adults living in the city who do not have school-aged children when compared to other groups.  A significant portion of the difference, however, can be attributed to Private School enrollment.

Why do families choose expensive private schools for their children when public school is free? Whatever your answer to that question, I think that it was those same factors that originally drove the creation of Lowell’s admissions policy, and those same factors are driving the current hysteria around the possibility of switching to a lottery system (and we’re only talking about for one year!).

What is at stake for the families who are beside themselves with fury at the very thought of Lowell admissions being determined by lottery?  Though I doubt many would use this particular wording, it’s the “dilution” of “high-achieving” students with “low-achieving” students, and the fear that a culture of “academic excellence” will be lost as teachers find they need to accommodate their teaching strategies to better serve a more diverse population. I imagine that everyone involved would absolutely deny that race is a factor in any of their protestations (and for most that’s probably actually true, at least explicitly), but  I also imagine that most people don’t have a good “non-racist” explanation for why the system they are fighting so hard to keep consistently produces racially inequitable outcomes. Though I am not trying to accuse any of these families of being directly responsible for the creation of a racially inequitable system, we become complicit in systemic racism when we fight to maintain systems that reliably produce racist outcomes.

What is at stake for the district in keeping or changing Lowell’s admissions process (or, for that matter, maintaining a school with Lowell’s mission at all)?  That one’s easy: money.  I already mentioned that a large percentage of potential SFUSD students are in private schools, and fewer students marked present every day means less state and federal money for the district. Another more subtle factor is that families who are able to afford private school tuition are also most likely the families who could contribute most to SFUSD funding initiatives that rely on family contributions through PTSA efforts, among others. Too many schools rely on funds beyond SFUSD to finance enrichment classes, equipment, and activities – and there are many who even rely on those funds to maintain adequate basic educational programs.

There are enough families in San Francisco that will send their students to a public high school if it functions like a de facto private school, and who will send their kids to private schools if they don’t get into the one public school they deem adequate for their child to attend. 

(Okay, two, because I haven’t mentioned SOTA, the whitest public high school in SFUSD. There’s another important discussion about why the obvious desire for high-quality arts programs isn’t addressed by funding robust arts programs at EVERY high school rather than creating a small niche for a… let’s just say “less diverse” group of students to take advantage of…)

Anyway, the existence of schools with non-lottery admissions policies like Lowell and SOTA that consistently produce inequitable outcomes creates a place for SFUSD to capture some of those students who have been in private school K-8, and who will continue with private school if they don’t get in. We are desperate not to lose those families, so we give them what they want.

Systemic racism doesn’t actually need overt racists to keep it going, just enough people for whom racially inequitable outcomes aren’t a good enough reason to accept necessary changes.

I’m not trying to demonize alumni or current students at Lowell at all. I have so many dear friends who attended or currently attend Lowell, and like I said we are a Lowell family! But we are a Lowell family that welcomes the experiment to use a lottery system this year, and wants more permanent changes that can produce more equitable outcomes to come sooner rather than later, and wouldn’t mind at all if Lowell did indeed become “no different from other public high schools in the city”. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if every student had access to the same academic instruction, resources, enrichment, and activities? Of course, that can be achieved easily by just refusing to invest meaningfully in any school, and our current model of reserving adequate investment for only some schools is in many ways even worse than that. Let’s invest in high-quality education and equitable access for all families, and let’s work for a San Francisco where a school like Lowell isn’t necessary.”

— Matt McDonnell, SFUSD parent and educator

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