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Lowell High School. (Photo: Wikipedia public domain)

Lowell High School to Reinstate Merit-Based Enrollment

A return to excellence triumphs over mediocrity

By Martin Marks, June 23, 2022 7:00 am

With the sting of a February recall election that saw three of its members bounced from its ranks fresh in their memories, the San Francisco Unified District Board of Education has voted to drop a 2-year-old lottery system to gain entrance into the elite Lowell School. By a slim 4-3 vote, the school will return to a merit-based applications process that uses grades, tests, and essays as criteria for acceptance. The system will go into place for the Freshman class entering in the Fall of 2023

Lowell High School of San Francisco, once considered one of the more prestigious and highest performing public schools in the nation, found itself again in the cross hairs of the ongoing debate regarding the use of merit-based criteria to gain entrance into its esteemed halls. With this latest School Board decision, the debate is hardly over. Lawsuits are expected and there will no doubt be continued posturing from those prioritizing Diversity and Inclusion over attracting the best and brightest of students irrespective of race or ethnicity.

 In October of 2020, the San Francisco School Board voted to change its competitive admissions process for Lowell from one based upon grades, test scores and essays to one that was mostly based on a lottery system. At that time, the Board cited difficulty in securing sufficient  letter grades and test scores given the ongoing pandemic as the cause for the change. Just a few short months later in February of 2021, the Board rammed through a proposal by a 5-2 vote to make the lottery system permanent. The majority cited “pervasive systemic racism” and a lack of diversity for its decision to make the lottery admissions process permanent.

Prior to the change, fewer that 2% of Lowell students were Black and only 12.5% were Hispanic. White students represented 25% of the high school, and Asian American students accounted for nearly 50% of enrollment. These numbers were far off kilter from the totals school district wide in San Francisco. 

By contrast, the incoming class for 2021 would rise to 22% Hispanic and 5% Black.  The White and Asian numbers were down to 18% and 38% respectively. 

Of course, to complicate matters for those bureaucrats and activists obsessed by race, many Lowell students claim multi-racial heritage. 

Fairly predictable results ensued. 

The first reaction was district wide outrage, particularly from the Asian American community who felt that their students were being specifically targeted for reduction. Many in the community accurately pointed out that more than 75% of the Lowell student body was already non-white. How could white privileged discrimination be the issue? Ugly public allegations and counter allegations of racism followed. A lawsuit was filed. Ultimately the imbroglio led to the ballot box where voters dismissed three of the five School Board members who favored permanently dropping merit-based admissions in a recall election in February of this year.

Also rather troubling was how that lottery-based incoming class of ninth graders ultimately performed. Of the 620 students in Lowell’s freshman class, 24.4% received at least one D or F grade during the fall semester, compared with 7.9% of first-year students in fall 2020 and 7.7% in fall 2019 when the merit-based acceptance policy was still in place. And the argument that was posited blaming the pandemic and remote learning for the comparatively dismal grades is easily dismissed as the failing grades for the upper classes—admitted through the merit-based process—almost insignificantly ticked upward. 

A three-fold increase in failing grades is hardly an anomaly.

And while Lowell High School has been the focus as of late over the use of merit-based admissions policies at elite public schools, it is hardly the first to grapple with the issue. Elite public schools across the nation are attempting to deal with similar circumstances where their merit-based admissions process has led to a demographically overrepresentation of Asian students, while offers of acceptance to Black and Hispanic students lagged. In 2019, The Stuyvesant School, New York City’s most elite public high school, found only seven Black students were offered admission out of 895 spots available.  Former NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio, whose children attended such merit-based elite schools, vowed to eliminate merit-based admissions policies in the name of equity and inclusion. His initiative was met with resistance both among parents and New York State legislators. 

Numerous other elite public schools across the land that have historically been launching pads to prestigious Ivy League university educations and prominent professional careers in all segments of society are now dismantling their competitive merit-based admissions policies in favor of ones that ensure a more diverse enrollment.

While we can pound our chests and proclaim we have done something wonderful by promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is obvious more harm than good is being done here. First and foremost, these prestigious schools are centers for the elite who have worked hard to earn acceptance. And these schools breed further excellence as students compete with each other and with themselves to improve their prospects for greater achievement at the postsecondary level of school and beyond. And while competition is an anathema to many, it is an absolute necessity if we are going to cultivate the best and the brightest to lead this nation and vie in an ever-increasingly competitive atmosphere worldwide.

Are we really doing the heretofore underrepresented communities any favors by thrusting students forward into highly competitive atmospheres based upon their race or ethnicity in order to bolster the diversity angle? As evidenced by the results at Lowell, many kids are invariably being set up for frustration and devastating failure having either not being adequately prepared for this level of academics or simply lacking the skills to thrive in such an atmosphere.

Further, how about those students in underrepresented minority communities who have gained acceptance to these elite institutions because of their own hard work and elite level qualifications? Is it fair to them to be the subject of unwarranted scrutiny—or worse—from fellow students and faculty as if to imply, “We know how you really got here.”

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent of Schools Vince Matthews had recommended to retain the lottery system at Lowell, citing logistical and staffing issues to administer a merit-based application process once again based upon grades, testing, and essays. The School Board has now rejected that recommendation. So, for now the new San Francisco School Board has narrowly chosen a return to excellence over a decent into mediocrity for the Lowell School as the lottery system has been dropped. 

Perhaps other school districts throughout the land will take a lead from Lowell High School decision and favor a return to or a continuation of striving for excellence through competition and merit. The alternative–mediocrity in the name of Diversity and Inclusion—is no virtue.

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5 thoughts on “Lowell High School to Reinstate Merit-Based Enrollment

  1. Your opinions expressed in this article make too much sense . They are logical and not based on feelings . For these reasons, people who are pushing for a lottery instead of merit based acceptance will not be able to relate to your ideas . Keep trying .

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