With equity --and diversity-- for all?
Debate over an elite San Francisco school’s admissions policy encapsulates fraught conversations about a new buzzword
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The first day Joseph Huayllasco entered Lowell High School, an academically selective public high school in San Francisco, a Latina student spotted him in the swarm of mostly Asian and white faces. She grabbed him by the hand: “Hey, you speak Spanish?” When Huayllasco nodded, she barked, “Come with me,” and led him through the courtyard to a huddle of about a dozen other Latino students.
That was 1988, and they were the only Latinos among the more than 2,000 students at Lowell. That was when Huayllasco, the son of Peruvian and Costa Rican immigrants, felt his first racial discomfort at Lowell. He’s now an entrepreneur with a nonprofit that teaches underprivileged kids how to code, but that discomfort hit him again when on Feb. 9 the San Francisco Board of Education decided to stop admitting students to Lowell based on academic performance, saying that’s “incompatible with diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Lowell will instead use the same lottery-based system as other public schools in the district: Any student who applies would have a shot at Lowell, whatever his academic level.
The discussion around Lowell’s admissions system is the tip of a hot national discussion on educational equity. Debates over whether to ax merit-based admissions or how to diversify gifted programs are raging in New York, Virginia, Texas, Massachusetts, and Ohio. Educational equity means helping all children receive what they need to develop their academic and social potential. But what that looks like on a granular level is messy.
Some want to keep merit-based admissions, saying academic achievement shouldn’t be demonized. Many families, especially Asian students who make up the majority in such specialized schools, see these schools as their ticket out of poverty. But those who want to scrap merit-based admissions say the idea of “bad schools” and “good schools” shouldn’t exist, and selective schools such as Lowell exacerbate segregation and inequity. They complain that more than half of Lowell’s 2,900 students are Asian, 18 percent are white, 12 percent are Latino, and 2 percent are black. In comparison, the overall district is 33 percent Asian, 28 percent Latino, 15 percent white, and 6 percent black. San Francisco has one of the highest rates of private school enrollment in the nation, but the conversations about equity are primarily focusing on the city’s public schools.
The debate over Lowell reveals two fundamentally different views on “equity.” One side sees unequal results as a sign of inequity and believes government and society have a moral and intellectual mandate to eliminate it. The other side, while acknowledging problems, argues that human efforts cannot eradicate them and warns the unintended consequences would be worse than the solution. Such different views lead to completely different approaches: One side focuses more on ethnic diversity and inclusion, while the other focuses more on making sure the process treats everyone the same. What’s happening in San Francisco and at Lowell is significant because it indicates where liberalism is headed in education reform.
LOWELL HIGH SCHOOL is one of the nation’s top-rated public high schools for its academic rigor, the sort of crème-de-la-crème institution that parents name-drop at dinner parties. For more than a century, Lowell attracted top-scoring, high-achieving students from all across the San Francisco Unified School District. To get in, students had to take entrance tests and display near-perfect grades.
Huayllasco assumed he got into Lowell because of his stellar test scores. But he felt hurt when his classmates found out he had the highest grade in a particularly challenging math class, and their jaws dropped: Were they shocked because he was Latino?
He squirmed during the many times his Asian American friends complained about Lowell allotting spots for underrepresented students, saying that’s discriminatory against Asians. For several decades, Lowell’s student body has been majority Asian. His friends didn’t accuse him of getting into Lowell because of his skin color—but the implication was there, and he felt torn between empathizing with his friends but also quietly seething.
“I felt embarrassed,” he recalled. “The way we talked about Latinos or African Americans was like, maybe they’re not good enough to come [to Lowell] and if we let them in, they’re not going to make it. It made one feel like you don’t belong.”
Many black and brown students still feel that way at Lowell. In January someone posted anti-black, anti-Semitic slurs and pornographic images on an online forum for Lowell students, prompting an uproar from students who said such racism isn’t out of the norm at Lowell.
Soon after, four school board commissioners and two student delegates drafted a resolution titled “In Response to Ongoing, Pervasive Systemic Racism at Lowell High School.” They wrote that Lowell’s merit-based admissions process “perpetuates segregation and exclusion” and that black and brown students “do not feel physically, emotionally or culturally safe and valued at Lowell.” Included in the resolution is a call for an “equity audit” that will create a plan to address racism at Lowell. The school board had already decided to use temporarily a lottery admissions system for Lowell last October, but the February vote made it permanent.
Two commissioners (out of seven) voted against the resolution. One of them, Jenny Lam, a second-generation Chinese American, pointed out recent anti-Asian attacks in the Bay Area and urged the board to consider other community voices as well. The other opposing commissioner, Kevine Boggess, who’s black, said he too experienced “anti-blackness and institutional racism” during his school days at San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). But he wondered if focusing on Lowell’s admissions without broader community input would achieve equity across the district: “How do we make sure every student who wants access to a class that’s offered at Lowell … has access to that?”
Equity was also on Huayllasco’s mind as he observed other Lowell alumni discuss the board’s resolution on Facebook. He saw former classmates vehemently argue that the new admissions policy is anti-Asian, that it’ll “dumb down” academic standards at Lowell—and once again, he wrestled with that familiar inner conflict he felt at high school.
Huayllasco’s parents taught him diligence, personal responsibility, and fairness. He attributeshis great education at Lowell mostly to the social climate: Like grains of rice speed-steaming inside a pressure cooker, being around highly motivated, academically excelling classmates challenged him to study harder, reach higher. He credits Lowell for preparing him for the University of California, Berkeley, and for his Wall Street career—and he wants those same opportunities for others like him.
But as he observed the impassioned chatter among Lowell alumni, Huayllasco also felt the familiar “Oh, I’ll prove you all wrong!” indignation that used to spring up when people questioned his place at Lowell. Many of his Latino friends didn’t get the quality education he did—not because they weren’t smart or didn’t work hard, but because their families didn’t have the knowledge and resources to blast open paths of opportunities as his did. What does equity look like for those kids?
“There’s no quick fix. This is a societal problem that’s been going on for a long time.”
EQUITY ADVOCATES say inequitable systems exist by design. Like other districts, San Francisco’s school district has a history of systemic racism that created disparities persisting to this day. The first public schools opened in 1851 were only for white children. California law prohibited nonwhite students from attending white public schools. Explicitly segregated schools, along with redlining maps, continued until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”
But segregation persisted for more than a decade longer in San Francisco (and many other cities). SFUSD tried a busing program to integrate schools, but black and lower-income families noticed it was mostly their kids being ferried across town, whereas middle-class white and Asian students found ways to attend schools within their own neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the white student population dropped by more than 30,000 between the mid-1960s to late 1970s as white families moved out.
In 1978 the NAACP and a group of black parents sued the district and the state, accusing them of maintaining school segregation. In 1983 the NAACP and the district reached a court-approved settlement (called a consent decree) that set racial quotas in schools and called for increased resources for historically neglected schools. The consent decree was partly successful in desegregating many schools, but disparities in academic performance persisted. By the 1990s segregation had increased again as Latino and Asian populations burgeoned while the white population dipped.
In 1994 a group of Chinese American parents sued the district, upset that SFUSD assigned their children to schools outside their neighborhoods. They settled in court in 1999: SFUSD could no longer consider race or ethnicity in student assignments. The district then decided to use a lottery system to assign students to schools, focusing on race-neutral factors such as socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and test scores. The idea was that allowing more choice for families would break down class and racial barriers to high-demand schools. But segregation and inequities continued.
In 2011 the school board tweaked the lottery: Families ranked their choices of any school in the district. Again, the opposite happened: San Francisco’s schools are more racially segregated today than they were 30 years ago. The district didn’t factor in the numerous preexisting disparities between families. Parents working two to three jobs, low-income single parents, and those who don’t know how the system works fell behind parents who had the time, resources, and connections to go on multiple school tours and navigate the complicated application process. As a result, more upper- and middle-class children than poor children enrolled in desirable schools.
THE SOCIAL ENGINEERING hasn’t worked. For families who cannot afford private schools, Lowell offered a private school education at a public school price. And Lowell did try to diversify its student body. For years, the school reserved one-third of spots for underrepresented students who had lower test scores but met minimum academic standards.
Francisco Lopez, a 71-year-old retired principal, said tinkering with Lowell’s admissions policy won’t make a dent in fixing the disparities among students: “There’s no quick fix. This is a societal problem that’s been going on for a long time.” The son of working-class immigrants (his father fled the Spanish Civil War as a refugee), Lopez graduated from Lowell in 1967 when many students were Jewish and the Chinese population was steadily growing. He loves Lowell: He can still sing the alma mater, he sent his daughter to Lowell, and he donates to its alumni association.
Lopez also worked 27 years as a teacher and principal in preschools and elementary schools in SFUSD. Some kids entered his preschool reading at second-grade level, while others couldn’t tell letters apart. Lopez remembers thinking, “How can that be? That’s such a big gap!” By the time the kids entered high school, their academic trajectory was already set.
He also saw a resource gap. One preschool consisting predominantly of Mexican and Salvadoran immigrants needed a playground, so parents spent hours wrapping and selling tamales. They raised $900. In another elementary school with a Japanese immersion program, the mostly upper-middle-class Japanese parents raised $190,000 in one fundraiser. Lopez was principal of that elementary school, and he remembers how easy it was to find parents willing to volunteer. But in the other preschool, most parents worked two to three jobs as house-cleaners and gardeners. Meanwhile, students brought their trauma into the classroom: Lopez had foster children who moved from home to home, kids with severe disciplinary problems that disrupted the entire class, boys who died from gun shootings before they turned 18.
How does a school district close those gaps? “They want to hold schools responsible for all the problems of society. It’s the great American experiment: We’re trying to make all of us equal when we’re not created equal,” Lopez said, meaning people are born with different learning styles, family backgrounds, gifts, and personalities.
WHEREAS LOPEZ believes some inequalities can’t be changed, the school board blames racism for perpetuating inequalities. Its measure of equity is racial and ethnic diversity, and Lowell’s previous admissions system, the board said, “excludes students of color.”
Much of that discussion focuses on negative experiences of black and brown students at Lowell. Helena Colindres, who graduated from Lowell in 2014, remembers one teacher using a racial slur and Asian students refusing to partner with black and brown students because they’ll “bring down their grades.”
Jessica Yu, a senior and president of the Student Body Council at Lowell, told me Lowell’s selectiveness “breeds an elitism that makes students think they’re so much better and smarter” and resent black and brown students, assuming they got in because of their skin color. She thinks worrying that diversifying the student body will bring down academic standards is “an incredibly classist and racist idea.”
But another Lowell alumnus, a Chinese American, told me he and his classmates simply worked hard to get into Lowell and felt like they “earned it”: “If you don’t get an A, people will tease you. It’s not based on ethnic background or skin color.” He and those who agree with him ask different questions than the San Francisco school board is asking: Is a merit-based admissions system really inherently racist? Is racial diversity a measure of equity? What are the unintended consequences of changing schools’ admissions?
Those are all questions Joseph Huayllasco ponders today. He knows his hard work and intelligence aren’t the only reasons he got into Lowell. He was 10 when his parents encouraged him to set his sights on Lowell, and his family moved into the San Francisco district so he could attend Lowell.
But perhaps his success had to do with personality and personal choices: Huayllasco is competitive, and he wanted to go to Lowell because he thrived in that stressful environment, loved the challenge and competition. Can anyone, given the same privileges as he had, do what he did?
Last year, Huayllasco instinctively signed an online petition opposing the school board’s decision to suspend Lowell’s merit-based admissions process. Today he’s not so sure: “I think I have too many questions in my mind. I feel that equity is important. But I’m just not sure if San Francisco is solving it the right way.”
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