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What Happens When an Élite Public School Becomes Open to All?

By Nathan Heller

Students sitting at desks in a classroom.

Rebecca Johnson, a teacher for more than twenty years, approached the first day of class at Lowell High School last fall with unusual anxiety. “I am used to having my plans and procedures mostly ready to go, and I am just excited to meet a new crop of kids,” she explained before the term began. “While I am still experiencing much of that excitement, I am also feeling some trepidation, and I am not sure exactly why.” On the first morning of school, she dressed the way she always does: an untucked button-down shirt, this one with flowers; gray slacks; and extraordinarily sensible black shoes. On arriving, she prepared herself, as usual, a mug of milky tea. Lowell is in western San Francisco, near the ocean, and a thick, low fog was sweeping through the eucalyptus and cypress trees as students arrived for the first time since the start of the pandemic, eighteen months earlier. Shortly after 8  a . m ., Johnson began walking the lower hallways, then the upper, while a tide of students lapped onto the campus as if from twenty-seven hundred different continents, all keen to see their futures made.

Upstairs, Johnson stood against the wall to guide the rush. She is both commanding and approachable, with snowy hair just past her shoulders and a big camp-counsellor voice, and people tend to come to her with their confusions. The school’s campus is a sprawl of irregular buildings, semi-connected; sophomores had attended only remotely, so half the student body was a little lost. “I don’t know where 270 is!” a boy cried, clawing at his hair and sprinting toward oblivion. “Can you feel the terror?” Johnson said.

Lowell, founded in 1856, is the oldest public high school in the West and a long-admired jewel of public education. A big seal on the building’s façade proclaims its status as a National Blue Ribbon School. In the front entrance, glass-framed boards display smiling head shots of illustrious alumni: Stephen Breyer, Alexander Calder, Jennifer Egan, Dian Fossey, Rube Goldberg, William Hewlett—the lists go on in every field. For decades, Lowell has been one of two public high schools in San Francisco to use selective admissions, with a grade- and test-score cutoff for most applicants. “They call us nerds, and I can’t refute that,” Catherine Hung, a junior, told me. “Lowell students will skip class to study for their next class.”

As the foot traffic intensified, Johnson pushed through a narrowing in the hallway—the Gates of Hell, she calls it, owing to the hourly bottlenecks it creates—and headed to Room 255, where desks were arranged in a double horseshoe. At 9 A.M. , seniors in A.P. Economics started streaming in. “Good morning! Wow, that was weird,” Johnson said. “And by ‘that’ I mean the last eighteen months.”

In 2020, when the pandemic made universal standardized testing impossible, Lowell temporarily suspended its admissions standards in favor of a randomized, lottery-like system. This seemed a relatively minor change amid the major weirdness of conducting school online. On February 9, 2021, however, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to make the lottery admissions system permanent, and responses suggested someone with a pinkie in a pencil sharpener. Parents cried out. Alumni threatened and launched lawsuits, and a few current students protested. Lowell, once a meritocratic beacon, had become something else: a bellwether for the uncertain future of selective public education.

“I always knew Lowell had a target on its back because of the demographics of its student body,” Terence Abad, a 1976 Lowell graduate who is the director of the Alumni Association and the speech-and-debate coach, told me. What he meant was that, compared with the district of San Francisco as a whole, Lowell’s student body has long had disproportionately high white and Asian American representation, and low representation for Latinx, Black, and other groups. In the school board’s view, some hidden bias was being amplified by its supposedly meritocratic admissions. “The school culture, alumni base, and support is strong enough to continue to carry its legacy,” Faauuga Moliga, formerly the board’s vice-president, told me.

Defenders of selective admissions conceded that there were inequities in the pipeline, but argued that letting people in randomly means admitting students who might not be able to handle the work, diluting the culture of achievement that lifts up underserved but brilliant students. Where’s the equity in that?

“Believe me nobodys going to care you had facial hair a hundred million years from today.”

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Last November, a lawsuit filed by the Lowell Alumni Association and others managed to invalidate the school board’s vote, on a procedural matter. Yet the judge stressed that the board was free to restore its change, and in December the superintendent of schools put through a resolution that the lottery would continue at least until next year. At a moment when many magnet schools are eying similar changes—New York City debated getting rid of the admissions test for its own selective schools three years ago; the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Virginia, altered its admissions criteria to accept a greater range of students; Boston Latin will make use of Zip Code allocations and G.P.A. scores—the future of admissions at Lowell is charged with uncertainty. Meanwhile, the first class of lottery freshmen arrived on campus like the setup for an odd experiment: What happens when you take one of the nation’s proudest, most selective schools, and suddenly let anybody in?

That morning, the seniors in Johnson’s A.P. Economics studied her syllabus the way a roomful of orthopedists might examine X-rays. She returned to the classroom to teach World History to freshmen, who entered slowly, looking tentative and scared. Johnson took out her seating chart and went around the room, calling out names. “You’re going to get out a piece of paper and something to write with,” she said. “You’re going to take some notes.”

A boy named Brandon, with a mop of black curls, looked around desperately for a sheet of paper. A boy named Arin, lean-built, bent over his page.

“This class is going to be hard,” Johnson went on. “You didn’t luck out and get the easy teacher. It’s going to probably take more time, especially at the beginning, than you like. The readings are not easy.

“But you are going to get through this hard class with all these difficult readings,” she said. “I’m going to give you the tools you need to do well in my class and at this school.”

As the period ended, she watched Lowell’s first lottery class dispersing back into the maelstrom of the hall.

“We’re going to get through this together,” she called after them. “It’s going to be O.K.”

Before the eighteen-twenties, white American boys and girls (but mostly boys) were educated through a mixture of homeschooling, tuition schooling, church schooling, and tutors. Life was largely agricultural; book learning hardly mattered. That changed during the early nineteenth century, when booming industrialism called for new specialists, and inequalities intensified across explosive growth. In 1848, Horace Mann, an early architect of the public-education system, wrote, “If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called; the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects.” Level the playing field of education, he thought, and a more equal society could emerge.

Lowell was established in Mann’s era and remains a lodestar for his cause. “I treated my Lowell admission like, Did I get into Harvard?” Juwairya Shaikh, who graduated last year, told me. Most students begin taking college-credit classes as sophomores, and the catalogue runs deep. A physics whiz can knock off calculus and A.P. Physics 2 as a junior, while working for the school newspaper (a habitual winner of national awards), joining the debate club (ditto), or marching in the drum corps (same). An ebullient senior named Derek Duncan told me that his “proudest moment” was leading the Lowell Robotics Team to victory in the international FIRST Robotics Competition. “Whenever I’m feeling down, I listen to a recording of the announcer saying, ‘These are your achievements,’ ” he told me.

Duncan, who, when I met him, was given to Keatsian turns about the beauty of the fog on the school fields, had lived in a long series of foster homes as a child. He came to Lowell from a magnet elementary school, and his dream is to enroll at Boston University. In that sense, he epitomizes the opportunity-equalizing work that Mann imagined, and he’s not alone. Sairy Velasquez, a freshman in Johnson’s World History class, is the youngest of five children and lives with her mother. (Her father is in El Salvador.) She was student-body president at her public middle school and, far from feeling helped by Lowell’s lottery, had worried that it might keep her from a spot that was otherwise assured. “I was always going to get in, because my grades were good,” she told me. From Lowell, she plans to go to college, while saving up to spend time in France.

According to this idea of meritocracy, an important role of education is to identify people with talent and motivation and cultivate their potential. It’s good for society—you won’t have to worry about the universe in which Mozart never got piano lessons—and it’s good for students, providing a lift no matter where they’re coming from. The lift is social and financial, but acculturative, too. “I wouldn’t be honest if I said students here weren’t motivated by their grades and the pedigree of the school, but they’re also excited about learning,” Cy Prothro, an A.P. Physics teacher who surfs before work, wears Hawaiian shirts, and explains acceleration curves with a pointer made to look like a prehistoric spear, told me. Previously, he’d taught at inner-city schools in Boston and Los Angeles, where classroom management was a struggle. At Lowell, which has a ninety-nine-per-cent graduation rate and mean SAT scores over thirteen hundred, his own talents for teaching could flourish. “I’m sure that there were students in my classes in L.A. who could have gotten the material as quickly, but there was so much else happening that they didn’t have my undivided attention,” he said, glancing toward project posters from a Lowell program that places students in biomedical labs at U.C.S.F.—special access granted on the premise that Lowell kids are pre-selected for smarts and bushy-tailedness.

The problem is that special access is the opposite of what public school is supposed to be about. This puzzle has been worked at like a Rubik’s Cube for years. In 1961, during the so-called Battle of Lowell, the superintendent sought to make Lowell—then the only high school in the United States to have produced two Nobel laureates—mostly a neighborhood school, arguing that its citywide application process was bad for equality because it made other schools de-facto second rate. Opponents argued that assigning schools by neighborhood was unfair—also bad for equality—since different neighborhoods were privileged in different ways. In 2014, the school district eliminated honors tracking, teacher discretion about who can enroll in advanced courses, and middle-school Algebra 1 offerings; people were concerned that these things, too, worked against equality. Not everyone agreed.

Rebecca Johnson posing outdoors.

“Forcing students to double up on math classes”—to catch up to peers who came from algebra-teaching private middle schools—“is, in my view, child abuse!” Mark Wenning, a biology teacher at Lowell, told me one day. Wenning, a high-strung man with clipped silvery hair and a stark blue-eyed gaze, has taught at Lowell for more than twenty-five years; he is known for running his classes by Socratic interrogation, cold-calling on startled freshmen like a professor at Harvard Law. He has protested efforts to “dumb down” the district’s curriculum—a trick, he thinks, to conceal the distance between the performance floor and ceiling by forcing the ceiling down. “They’re giving up on fixing the achievement gap for students who need help, and as a result they’re making it hard for all the other students to succeed in life and in college,” he told me.

Yet Wenning doesn’t deny that help is needed. He started to tell me about some anti-racist workshops that Lowell teachers attended, and abruptly began to weep. “It was amazing and inspiring to see so many of my colleagues who I didn’t know well speak so passionately about these issues—I couldn’t believe it!” he said. The sentiment was unsurprising, as was the agitation. When Americans talk about “the achievement gap,” they’re speaking euphemistically of the same worries broached in 1961, when the board proposed different schools for different neighborhoods. They are talking about race.

“As we walk, notice the kids, and who’s sitting together,” Adee Horn, who leads Lowell’s Peer Resources program, told me as we crossed between buildings at lunch. Asian American kids were gathered mostly with other Asian American kids; white students with other white students. “Lowell is a very diverse school, but there’s a lot of segregation within that diversity.” When Horn arrived at Lowell, in 2007, to head Peer Resources, which trains students in tutoring and counselling one another, she found what seemed to her a pattern.

“A lot of the issues that students were getting in arguments about, or their reasons for needing mentoring or tutoring, were connected to societal oppressions, be it racism or heterosexism or sexism,” she said. Peer Resources became the front guard of Lowell’s equity project. In 2019, after it grew clear that families from certain lower-income neighborhoods had trouble commuting to school, Peer Resources kids got the city’s transportation agency to consider improvements to a crucial bus line. Horn herself helped organize workshops on bias and micro-aggressions. Last winter, one of these initiatives unexpectedly exploded. After screening a video about the problems with the slogan “All Lives Matter,” organizers gathered responses to it on an online platform, which was soon vandalized with slurs—the N-word, the K-word—and pornography.

Lowell at that point was less than two per cent Black and twelve per cent Latinx, compared with eight and thirty-two per cent, respectively, in the district. “In most of my classes I’m the only Black student,” Gabrielle Grice, a junior and the current president of the school’s Black Student Union, told me. This made the vandalism seem very pointed.

The principal sent a letter to the school community denouncing the act, but some students, finding the letter insufficient, e-mailed a letter of their own to the mayor and others, condemning the “rampant, unchecked racism at Lowell.” Several members of the school board shared the concern. “Why are these issues occurring at the school?” Moliga, the former vice-president, wondered. “Is it because of the diversity makeup? Does the admissions policy play into that?”

Before the lottery, Asian Americans made up half of Lowell’s freshman class. The western side of San Francisco has long been a transpacific node, a place where it is easy to find a proper phở gân bò or the latest Taiwanese snacks, and one of Lowell’s functions has been to serve as a diasporic merging lane. Asian immigration has been growing in the U.S. for half a century, and, since 2009, Asians have been the largest group of new arrivals yearly, so some see it as natural that the demographic should be well represented at the access-and-assimilation gates. At Lowell, though, Asian American preëminence has been perennially insecure. In 1983, selective enrollment of any “racial /ethnic” group was capped at forty per cent, ultimately raising the admissions bar only for Chinese Americans; in 1999, the practice was invalidated in a settlement agreement. Some see the lottery as the latest effort to suppress Asian American enrollment, which fell eight per cent in this year’s freshman class, and at a moment of particular concern. Two Fridays ago, the judge in a federal case struck down the recent admissions changes at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School, where the representation of Asian American students this school year fell by nineteen percentage points, citing an uneven playing field that disadvantaged them.

In San Francisco, mistrust only intensified when, after the board’s five-to-two vote to make Lowell’s lottery permanent, public attention landed on a series of five-year-old tweets by its vice-president, Alison Collins, saying that Asian Americans “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’ ” Collins was stripped of her committee assignments and Moliga became vice-president for a while.

“I’m for affirmative action,” Oliver Chin, an author of popular children’s books, told me one afternoon. Chin, who is Chinese American, has two boys: his older son graduated from Lowell; his younger son ended up as a freshman elsewhere. Chin sees the need for greater diversity, but thinks that “the lottery is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.”

Lowell is one of the more middle class of the large San Francisco public high schools: thirty-three per cent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared with sixty per cent at Balboa High School and sixty-two per cent at Galileo. It also has, by some measures, big coffers. Public schools are awarded six hundred dollars for each A.P. test taken, and Lowell offers thirty-one A.P. courses. The cash is supposed to pay for extra prep time for A.P. teachers, but what’s left over supports other staffing: Peer Resources, tutoring, arts faculty, and a rich catalogue of language instruction. This produces an upward spiral. Kids who applied because Lowell had a lot to offer take the A.P. courses, and the tests bring funding to make Lowell a school with a lot to offer. To the extent that the spiral makes Lowell competitive with private prep schools, it provides appealing access both for underprivileged families and for the middle class.

“People need something to shoot for,” Chin told me, and produced a matrix of notes on which he’d circled the term “white flight.” Enrollment in the school district dropped by thirty-five hundred kids during the pandemic, with the largest losses among white and Filipino students. Many see the shift as evidence of middle-class fickleness: parents fed up with online learning or poor access going elsewhere. And, because the school district is subsidized by enrollment numbers, the drop helped create a hundred-and-twenty-five-million-dollar budget deficit. (According to the U.S. Census, San Francisco has the fourth-highest per-student funding among large school systems, but that figure plummets when you factor out funds unavailable for operational use.) In order to keep the students and the money coming, Chin thought, the district needed a great school like Lowell. And keeping Lowell selective, surely, was the way to keep it great.

“Remember, what can we say about the level of easiness on this reading?” Johnson asked one Friday early in the semester. She doesn’t love the required world-history textbook, and adds her own reading—today, an article by the scholar Lynda Shaffer that had appeared in the Journal of World History , in 1994. A tall blond boy raised his hand.

“Uh—it’s graduate level?” he said.

“Yeah,” Johnson said. “And not graduate-from-eighth-grade level. It’s hard. So—should you feel all stupid and loser-y if you don’t understand everything?”

Students walking across campus at Lowell High School.

“ No ,” the class replied in unison.

“Can you feel a little confused and frustrated?” Johnson went on. “Yeah. But then you just move on. What is your goal in reading this?”

“Just extract information,” Sairy Velasquez proposed.

“That’s it,” Johnson said. “How do you know what information to extract? I’m going to tell you what we’re looking for.”

Johnson divided the students into groups to begin a seven-page section of the article, passing around a worksheet with fact-oriented questions. She walked from group to group, reviewing the students’ work—an approach modelled on the now popular “flipped classroom” method, which holds that class time is for teachers to tutor students as they actively engage with material, not give lectures on what they could study at home.

“What does ‘contemporary’ mean again?” a girl asked as Johnson came around.

A boy inquired, “Is this going to be graded?”

Johnson noticed that Brandon, the curly-haired boy, and Arin had become friends. In some ways, they were different: Brandon’s parents had come from Mexico, and worked at a restaurant in the Mission. Arin lived in the Inner Richmond, and his parents worked in tech. He had applied to Lowell along with a couple of parochial schools.

The boys had got to know each other the first week, when Johnson gave her class a “name quiz,” to make sure they knew their peers. The formality of the exercise had puzzled Brandon, who simply leaned over and asked Arin, “Hey, bro, what’s your name again?,” and wrote it down. Arin thought that was hilarious. They discovered that they shared a lunch period, and began eating together. Brandon was shy with grownups but had a warm, joshing swagger with his peers, reliably bugging the girls around him for paper and pens (his binder was kept à la bohème ), and bantering along the way. “I just talk to people,” he told me. After school, he liked to go with a group past the Waymo car lot to the Stonestown mall, prancing forth in the checkered flannel pajama pants that are the cool look now. Arin was more mannerly with grownups—on our first meeting, he shook my hand three separate times—and kept a tight schedule to balance academics with basketball. (“I talked with several high-school students before coming, and they’re all, like, ‘Time management, time management, time management!’ ” he told me; his father helped him budget out his homework schedule in advance.) But the boys already had the private language of close buddies, murmuring half phrases to each other and cracking up. “He helps me,” Arin said. “And I help him.”

Johnson looked at Brandon’s blank worksheet. “You got distracted?” she suggested. Brandon nodded and, under her gaze, slowly began to work. She moved on to study his neighbor’s progress. “You’ve got a lot of words, my friend,” she said.

It wasn’t praise. Johnson doesn’t let freshmen take notes in full sentences, honing a distillation skill that, she thinks, trains them to sort the important from the dross. Gradually, the bullets become paragraph responses. “I have kids writing college-level work by the end of their freshman year—I’ll stand by that,” she told me. “They’re often not my strongest kids to begin with, but we just keep working it.”

Before coming to Lowell, fourteen years ago, Johnson had taught social studies, science, and math at Wallenberg, a much smaller public high school across town. She loved it—she was also a badminton coach—and had a distaste for Lowell. “I couldn’t say the name Lowell without, you know, ‘I hate’ in front of it,” she recalled. Wallenberg kids didn’t test as impressively as Lowell kids, but the school was small enough that teachers could build a rapport with students, and she saw them thrive. At a certain point, Johnson became restless at Wallenberg—there was a new administration she didn’t like—and eventually applied for an opening at Lowell. But she remained deeply skeptical of the place for months.

“I just felt that everybody was breaking their arms off trying to pat themselves on the back,” Johnson said. She’d been accustomed to taking kids with middling test scores and graduating them as capable students. At Lowell, students entered in the ninety-seventh percentile and left in the ninety-seventh percentile. The heavy lifting seemed to be done not in the classroom but in admissions.

New cactus sprouts in cactuscovered front yard.

Like Prothro, though, she found it hard not to enjoy teaching kids who started class with pencils poised and could be arrantly themselves. Some made a point of boning up on current events, like little senators. The My Little Pony Club was among the most vibrant there. In time, Johnson became another devoted Lowell teacher. Yet her belief in education as a funicular, boarding everyone and lifting them together, remained.

After class that Friday, Johnson told me that more kids than usual were struggling: “There are a couple of students I really worry about—because of the comprehension, but also because they give up.” On Wednesday, she convened the seven other World History teachers to compare notes. They gathered in Room 255; outside, the drum corps was practicing, and the eerie music-box tinkle of a glockenspiel came through the windows as they spoke.

“I thought this would be a good meeting to talk about the number of reluctant learners,” Johnson said. She was requiring each freshman to schedule a “binder check,” to make one-on-one contact. The meetings were illuminating. One freshman who she’d thought was slacking off turned out to have a third-grade reading level: he wasn’t truculent, just petrified. Slipping so far through the cracks was a new problem at Lowell, but she’d alerted the boy’s homeroom teacher and got him connected to tutoring.

“I feel as if this year we’re getting kids at a very early curve,” one of her colleagues said.

“I had one kid put a ‘Kick Me’ sign on someone,” Johnson said. “It’s, like, come on, guys, this is high school!”

They wondered whether this was an effect of the pandemic’s disruption, and agreed on the importance of “scaffolding”—building skills alongside the material. Later, when I spoke with freshmen, I found that they’d noticed the support. “World History is definitely a hard class, but Ms. Johnson is pushing for us to get there,” a student named Calliope told me. Still, the funicular theory of education makes some people uncomfortable; it suggests that what’s called “excellence” is just a term for getting the right breaks.

Early one rainy morning, before school began, I met an academic named Debbie Lee a short walk from campus. Lee graduated from Lowell in 1988. Her parents were immigrants from mainland China who spoke little English; her mom was a seamstress, and her dad was a cook. “There was definitely pressure from my parents to, you know, become a lawyer or a doctor, go to Berkeley or Stanford,” she told me. “Those were the things they heard from their friends.”

At Lowell, Lee enrolled in honors classes. “Then I hit a wall, and I didn’t know where to find help,” she said. When she struggled in math, she felt she had less recourse on account of being Chinese American. A substitute teacher told her, “You’ve completely ruined my stereotype of what an Asian female should be.” Lee never took the SAT, because nobody at Lowell told her that she should, or how to sign up.

Instead, she went to community college, transferring to Berkeley and then to San Francisco State University, where she earned two degrees. Last year, in an op-ed that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle , she wrote that Lowell’s vaunted achievement culture was “toxic,” a course of uneven hurdles. Lee made her career as a teacher of mathematics at the Foothill community college, where she chaired two departments and became a dean. To the extent that Lowell steered her away from math and academia, the fields in which she thrives, it had failed to give her helpful access.

Many of Lee’s Lowell classmates who came from immigrant families did take the SAT, of course. But they seemed to her to have parents who were more educated, with more professional jobs, and, even back in China, they had come from different strata. Her experience shows the differences concealed by broad demographic categories—a notorious problem in private education. Between 1959 and this past fall, Black representation among admitted Harvard students increased from less than two per cent to sixteen per cent. But a Harvard Crimson survey of more than half of this year’s freshmen found that more than forty per cent of Black respondents came from the top quarter of U.S. income distribution, a measure far beyond the Black population as a whole: these were pretty fancy people before they got to Harvard Yard. The stakes for public education are even higher, because public education is the first and often the last resort.

Joanna Lam, a senior in Johnson’s A.P. Economics class, is the president of Lowell’s student body, and one of two students in the city elected to be a school-board representative. Lam’s parents are Cambodian immigrants, and for college she was drawn to an élite degree program run between Berkeley and Sciences Po. She could be a poster child for the promises of selective admissions, yet she supports the lottery.

“You can’t have a merit-based system and say it’s fair because, ‘Oh, it’s a public school, you don’t have to pay to get in,’ when you have students who are paying for tutoring, or who have grown up in environments where it’s safe to go to school,” she said. Lam was capable but, in her own view, lucky, too. And, if you had to be both things to ascend through Lowell, then surely the luck was most fairly delivered through a lottery.

Debbie Lee saw a hidden sorting mechanism at Lowell. “It’s a school that assumed people knew how to navigate the educational system already,” she told me, as the rain outside abated. The school flew the flag of élite access for first-generation students, but within that group it was set up to reward those at the socioeconomic top.

Brandon sitting on a tree trunk outdoors wearing pants with the Lowell High School crest.

October is the April of San Francisco, fickle and cruel. The days are the warmest and sunniest they’ll ever be, though each one brings a fresh chance of wildfire. At Lowell, the first round of grades had been filed for the freshmen, and teachers saw a big change from previous years.

“I have three times as many students as usual failing—instead of one or two, I have three to six,” Wenning, the biology teacher, told me. “I have some students who have done no work the whole first grading period.”

Wenning had contacted students, parents, and counsellors. He’d offered extra-credit points if kids came to see him for tutoring; when they showed up, he’d let them elect to retake one test. He tried to help organize study groups (only one student signed up) and circulated a list of Web sites, podcasts of his own creation, and other resources.

“I’m at the end of my rope in what I can offer,” he told me. “I don’t think some of these students would be doing well at any high school, which makes me wonder why they wanted to come to Lowell.”

Johnson thought that the pandemic, rather than the lottery, might explain much of the change. “I have to keep reminding myself that these guys were halfway through seventh grade when they left school,” she told me. “I notice a difference in my seniors, too.”

In San Francisco, parents grew irate at the decision to keep secondary education remote for nearly three semesters. Last February, the city filed a lawsuit against its own district in an effort to force reopenings. In June, the chair of the board’s parent-advisory committee stepped down and protested what she described as its indifference to “learning loss.” Similar debates were escalating nationally—last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the F.B.I. to investigate threats against school-board members and staff—but the mood in San Francisco was unusually sharp. In October, the city authorized a recall election for Collins, Moliga, and the board’s president, Gabriela López, with some eighty thousand signatures for each. The Chronicle , in an editorial, endorsed the recall, and last month all three were removed by public votes of more than seventy per cent.

Joe Ryan Dominguez, who was hired as Lowell’s principal after the upheavals of last spring, acknowledged weaker performance in the lottery class. “The students who are struggling the most in this first grading period are our ninth-grade students,” he said. About ten per cent had a D or lower in at least one subject; the average freshman G.P.A.s that autumn fell ten per cent from what they had been before the pandemic.

Dominguez, a slender man in his mid-thirties who wears bow ties and roams campus with a walkie-talkie, was a math teacher before he became an administrator. He grew up in Arizona, with a single mother who did not finish high school. In middle school, he began struggling in math class, and she couldn’t help. “I remember seeing the desperation in her face—she took me to the school and asked my teachers whether they could take care of me, and they did,” he said.

When he accepted the principal job at Lowell, Dominguez assumed that the school board had a vision for the school’s transformation. But, since starting, he’d had just one meeting with the board’s president, and only after sending multiple e-mails. He booked a meeting with Moliga, the vice-president, who never showed up. (Moliga says that he has no recollection of any meeting being scheduled.) The hands-off approach confused Dominguez. Back in Tempe, Arizona, “we’d have a school-board member on campus every couple of months, just to see how the kids are doing,” he told me. He supported the lottery—“I had hesitations about being at a school that was selective”—but worried that, if freshman performance continued to be a concern, he’d have full accountability and no support.

Johnson had become desperate. “I’ve had a lot of feelings of inadequacy and failure,” she told me in mid-autumn. “Usually by now I’m getting more content or process questions—‘why’ or ‘how’—but I’m still getting a lot of questions about what words mean.”

Because nearly all Lowell freshmen take World History, there are structures of support outside the classroom. One day, I went to visit an AVID class, part of a nonprofit partner program to help students from low-access backgrounds. (The acronym stands for “advancement via individual determination.”) Freshmen broke into groups and took turns presenting material. Near the windows, a girl was at work on algebra. Near the door, a boy in World History analyzed the human effects of industrialization.

“So the good things were more trade, and they created textiles and clothing and stuff like that faster,” he was saying. “The bad stuff was that there were lesser jobs for the people, because machines were doing all the work.”

AVID is meant to augment classroom lessons. In Johnson’s course, industrialization arose at a crucial point in the curriculum, when she would begin to shape students’ understanding of the modern world.

“Landed gentry,” she began one afternoon. “Anyone know what that means?”

A boy’s hand shot up: “Isn’t that one of those guys that have no testicles?”

“No,” Johnson replied. On the board, she drew two triangles resembling the food pyramid. One depicted a climb from peasants through merchants, landed gentry, and aristocrats. The other depicted an ascent from factory workers through shopkeepers, an ownership class, and a shrinking aristocracy. The layers of the old model were highly unequal, she explained, but its people shared towns and relationships of symbiotic accountability. After industrialization, the old gentry tended to marry the ownership class and disengage from feudal bonds. “These people”—she pointed to the factory workers—“don’t even know people in the gentry.”

TITLE A Visit from The Jowl Fairy

Johnson’s goal was to explain such narratives while reaching past them—a challenge for a class still struggling to ask those “why” questions. Her students had read a passage from their textbook outlining various reasons that industrialization began in Britain: rivers and canals, iron and coal, banks and so forth.

“But this was also happening in China,” she told the class. “Also in the Islamic Empire.” Modern banking began in Italy; much of Europe had coal and iron deposits. “Your textbook is making it sound like Britain is the only one with iron ore, the only one that has skilled craftsmen, the only one with banks and rivers and canals. What I would try to get you to notice is that there are other places that had these things as well. So therefore—what is the thing that makes Britain different? Dare to be wrong.”

“Capitalism?” a boy suggested.

“You’re right, at the beginning, but capitalism comes out of industrialism—it’s about who owns the machines,” Johnson said. “How about this: Do you remember what industry starts the Industrial Revolution? Talk with your neighbor. Ten seconds.”

There was chattering among the students, then growing silence, as a realization crept across the classroom like a bristle up the spine.

“ Cotton ,” someone said, very softly.

A few students leaned forward at their desks. Brandon looked up.

“Cotton,” Johnson said. “Where is Britain getting its cheap cotton from? And who is growing that?”

The hands of the clock sped forward as the class glided from there. By a logical process of elimination, Johnson had overturned a standing narrative about industrialization and all it wrought, but she had also challenged certain habits of mind. History wasn’t just a list of causes and effects, credits and debts; it was a flow of intersecting domino rows running around the globe. Everybody’s past was implicated.

As the fall progressed, both Arin and Brandon felt their positions to be precarious. Arin was doing well in his classes, but he worried that the success wouldn’t last—a common concern among Lowell students, many of whom had schedules packed like heavy suitcases and lived in fear of the zippers splitting. In December, a sleep survey conducted by the school newspaper found that fifty per cent of students had fallen asleep in class. (“Ironically, I got the least amount of sleep when we were working on that,” Rae Wymer, the paper’s co-editor-in-chief, told me.)

Arin standing on a tree trunk in front of a body of water.

Brandon’s fears were more about baseline performance. “To be honest, last unit I was just wandering off—I wasn’t doing my work or nothing,” he said. “Now I’m actually determined. My biology teacher told me that if I keep doing this bad I’m going to have to redo her class next year.” Brandon hadn’t previously been a stellar student, and had come to Lowell at his mother’s urging. But it wasn’t only her dream. Brandon wanted to go to college, even though it wasn’t something his family had done in the past. His aspiration was to be a chef; his father had trained as one, but had to abandon the pursuit when he left Mexico. “I’m trying to follow in his footsteps,” Brandon said.

Despite the stress, the friendship between Arin and Brandon flourished. They ate together. They met up on a weekend to play soccer in the Mission. Johnson noticed that, not long after she started seating the boys next to each other, Brandon began turning in his homework reliably for the first time. It was as if a rope now joined him and Arin in a lead climb, one setting the bolts while the other belayed, and both of them, feeling uncertain on their own, were moving up the cliff together.

For Johnson, this came as a small revelation, and it helped her find her confidence in her work again. She’d been trying every teaching technique she knew, but it turned out that one of the best tools available was just what made the freshman class the freshman class: the mixture of students and the bonds that developed among them. Pedagogy is full of big ideas, but its unofficial golden rule is that, whenever something really works, you keep doing it. Even as Johnson changed her seating chart around, she tried to keep the boys together, silently cheering them on.

If one model of expanding access is to let more people through the door, another relies on curricular design: what happens once students show up inside the building. “We don’t know what these kids are carrying—they need support,” Nicole Henares, a freshman-English teacher, told me in the courtyard one afternoon. “The curriculum has to be culturally responsive.” In her freshman classes, students study, alongside “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” and works by the Bay Area poet Asha Sudra. Henares’s assignments encourage students to develop their own voices. (One prompt invites them to “assume the identity of the character that most stands out to you and write a monologue.”)

There is, however, a third model, which is that education is essentially relational. Access isn’t determined only by which students get past the gate, or by where they come from, but by how they make their way in relation to their teachers and their peers. That kind of access is hard to track; the reason Brandon started doing his homework can’t be captured in numbers. Yet, the more I talked with students, the more I found that relational access was the kind that mattered most to them, and the kind they found most unreliable at Lowell.

“In our slavery unit, the teacher let us know that images are going to be disturbing—and she just looked at me and told me, in front of the whole class, if I would like to step out I can, because this will affect ‘your kind of people,’ ” a junior named Aliyah Hunter, the events coördinator of the Black Student Union, said. Her schoolmates in the B.S.U. told me that teachers unsure how to treat period passages containing offensive racial terms would sometimes ask Black students to read them aloud. Other Lowell students described feeling trapped by stereotypes at play among their peers. Jacqueline Juarez, a junior who identifies as Latinx, told me about struggling with math in her freshman year, and getting the cold shoulder when she sought help from classmates. When she asked the teacher, she was told that she should be learning from her peers. Desperate, Jacqueline called her sister, in college, who offered to tutor her.

“Suddenly, I knew more than the other students, and they would approach me for help. I’m, like, No.” She’d realized she’d been left off the group chats that students used for studying, an exclusion that she believed rose from stereotypes about Latinx people and math. This past fall, she began tutoring a freshman who was experiencing the same cold-shouldering, and was thinking of leaving Lowell. Jacqueline sat him down and told him how things were. “I was able to convince him to stay,” she said. “For now.”

The relational vision of education means that performance should be thought of less as a measure of fixed aptitude and more as a quantum path: one outcome among many possible ones. It means that a school like Lowell isn’t in the excellence-sorting game but in the path-making game. And it means that, in shaping equal access, you can’t think only of one individual or group; you have to study how they interact.

Imagine you’re the kind of student often called underprivileged. Your parents struggle with bills, unemployment, prejudice, addiction, mental illness, or all of the above. Through effort and luck, you perform well in school, advance to a good college, and get a first-rate job. You earn, let’s say, a six-figure salary. At thirty or so, you realize that you’ve made it to what’s often called the middle class. Sure, you might run into difficulty from here, but you’re resourceful, informed, and, as a result of your path, well connected. When people speak of educational access for the underprivileged, this is the outcome they hope for.

Perhaps you land in a prospering city, such as San Francisco or New York. You have kids. Now you notice that, somewhere along the way, the economies of things changed. The costs you confront—a home, child care, education—make your head hurt. Somehow, you are still living on the edge.

Much has been made of working-class Americans who feel cast out of the garden. We hear less about another group with similar anxieties. Call them the pinched middle: supposedly accomplished professionals who now feel that they’re barely holding on. By scrambling onto the middle-class raft, you thought you had reserved a place there for your kids as well. But you’ve done the math, and, though you might have been able to afford private school twenty years ago, when tuition could be below twenty thousand dollars, now tuition is more than fifty thousand (per year! per child!), and the good schools offer slim odds of entry.

For most people, that leaves the public system. Looking at schools in your city, you have visions of being thrown back toward the upbringing you thought you had escaped. And no one is interested in giving you a leg up now: you are the middle class.

Those who speak about Lowell often frame their concerns in terms of access for underprivileged kids, and with good reason. What becomes clear, though, is that, in order to secure that access, access must also be insured for the pinched middle class. If no middle-class stability waits at the top of the ladder, then your climb has been for naught (and heaven forbid you pick up school debt on the way). The access has become a trap.

Two people looking out their apartment window at an erupting volcano.

Middle-class parents told me how stuck they felt. “Private school was never an option for us,” an Oxbridge graduate who runs an events business said. His daughter had been a middle-school valedictorian and aspired to go to Lowell, but didn’t make it past the lottery. He and his wife, both of whom worked full time, couldn’t afford private school: applying cost a hundred dollars per application, and that was just the start. “It’s basically a rich person’s game,” he said.

It is telling that students have begun to feel the middle-class pinch, too. “I used to ask, ‘How many of you want to get a 4.0 because you want to buy your parents a home?,’ and everybody would raise their hands,” Nicole Henares, the English teacher, told me. “Now they don’t, because they know they’re not going to be able to.” Lowell shows that underprivileged access and middle-class access are increasingly twinned. Fulfilling any promises that public education makes depends on genuinely opening the doors to underprivileged students while carrying the striving middle class through, too. This year, for all its trials, Lowell seemed the rare school on its way to getting there.

Winter break drew near. Johnson played “Last Christmas” and “Ocho Kandelikas” as her students worked together in groups. Wenning had holiday lights strung above his whiteboards. In A.P. Economics, a senior with a calculator wondered whether to drop one of his low scores, as Johnson allowed. “Currently, 17.6 per cent of my grade is the final, but if I drop a quiz it becomes 18.4 per cent,” he told a classmate. He decided to hedge.

Yet things were looking up. Several of Wenning’s struggling freshmen were doing better. In World History, Johnson was leading her students toward the big picture. What were the two I-words? she asked. “Industrialism” and “imperialism.” Hadn’t we seen how they were linked—how industrial activity accelerated imperial activity? Could we compare the populations living under industrialism with those living under imperial rule? Yes: both made important migrations starting in the nineteenth century, but they were coming from different places, and with different prospects. Maybe that would end up being important later on.

Outside the classroom, Arin and Brandon were having trouble finding time for each other. As basketball ramped up, Arin started spending lunch in the library, desperate not to fall behind. Brandon, when he sat down to work, found himself getting distracted by his phone. Both boys seemed less propulsive, as if bouncing on a seesaw alone.

Johnson spent her break reflecting on her classroom strategies. When she returned, in January, she divided the class into new work groups and spent time with the students who had been struggling the most. Then she reshuffled the groups again and had the students present to their teammates what they’d learned. Some of those who had been falling behind were now teaching their peers.

“The trick is that the kid has to recognize that they’ve made a step and that it’s solid footing for them, so then, when they step back, they know that it’s not their ability limiting them,” she said. For Brandon, the gains carried. Johnson wouldn’t tell me about specific students’ performances, but she said that kids who had started the semester doing F work, or none at all, were now turning in writing assignments in the B range. One of the most foot-dragging freshmen had shyly asked whether she thought he should enroll in an A.P. history class next year. Yes, she told him, working to hide her excitement.

“In the past, we would ask, you know, Are these kids ‘Lowell’?” She paused in what looked to me like awe. “They are Lowell. These are Lowell students. And, to me, that says that anybody can be a Lowell student.” It just required good support and attentive work from clever teachers. And time.

On January 26th, Johnson and her colleagues attended a meeting with the heads of their union, the United Educators of San Francisco, which was under new leadership. They had recently heard details about a contract extension that was being submitted to the school district, and there was good news: a bunch of money held in escrow for teachers was finally being disbursed, helping to fund two two-thousand-dollar bonuses. But there was also ominous news: the contract would forfeit the extra A.P. funding, the six hundred dollars per test, to help with a budget crisis. Lowell teachers remember this being framed in terms of equity, since low-performing schools had fewer A.P. tests. (A union representative disputed this characterization.) The A.P. cuts were set to expire in a year, but Cassondra Curiel, the head of the union, acknowledges that the district will probably want to extend them. “It is reasonable to prepare for the fact that the district will bring the cuts forward,” she told me. The money would then have to be brought back, if at all, by way of the negotiating table.

Johnson’s stomach dropped when she learned about the cuts. She shakily made some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and, when the question-and-answer period opened, was one of the first to speak. Had the union heads realized what the A.P. money funded? she asked. Lowell got more than two million dollars a year from the funding and used most of it for salaries. With the money forfeited, it would lose—she checked her calculations—about twenty-five full-time teachers.

There was a long silence. At Lowell, the spillover from A.P. funding supports programs such as arts and robotics, as well as those, such as Peer Resources and AVID , that help underrepresented students find their way: the very offerings that made Lowell both appealing to middle-class families and viable for students arriving from all backgrounds. Johnson saw a school district at risk of collapsing on itself: the best schools stripped of their competitive extras; the middle class slowly pulling away; enrollment, and thus funding, continuing to fall; underprivileged kids being chased up an achievement path to nowhere—all while the prosperous further enriched and sealed off their caste through private access.

Union voting on the contract ended on February 7th. It was ratified, fifty-seven to forty-three. Soon after President Biden finished his State of the Union address last Tuesday, the school board prepared to vote on acceptance. Joanna Lam, via Zoom, pressed the district’s representatives for details of the contract’s effects: “Will there be a loss of either A.P. or elective courses as a result of this tentative agreement passing?”

“At this time, we do not anticipate there will be a reduction in courses,” the assistant superintendent of high schools answered.

When I spoke with Dominguez, he was raking over the budgets, figuring out what could be rescued. Between system-wide cuts and the forfeited A.P. funds, he told me, Lowell would lose $3.6 million, dropping its per-pupil funding to the bottom of the district. It would lose between twenty-one and twenty-eight educators, about twenty per cent of its faculty; between one and three teachers would likely be pink-slipped, and the district would scatter the rest to other institutions. Dominguez thought he’d eked out a way to hold on to AVID —for one more year, at least—but he hadn’t figured out how to keep Peer Resources as it currently existed, or Lowell’s arts and languages programs: with so much money gone, it was impossible to fund what once made Lowell unique.

During a call-in period at the board meeting, Aliyah Hunter joined other B.S.U. members in pleading against the contract. “Please listen to students,” she said. A junior named Cal Kinoshita, who is one of the leaders of Lowell’s parliamentary debate team, followed. “You hear all these students get on here, some of them borderline crying, Black and brown students,” he said, accusing the board of “stripping the comfort away from marginalized students—it’s not humane.”

The grownups on the school board considered the matter. “I think it’s been well known for a long, long time that this extra prep period for A.P. has been an inequitable practice,” Matt Alexander, a non-recalled board member, said.

“This funding model basically means that schools that have students that are more likely to take tests get more money,” Collins, voting while waiting out her replacement, said.

“Again, we are met with the opportunity to correct a decades-long issue around this funding inequity,” López, also waiting out her recall replacement, said. In the end, only Lam, the student, voted against the contract.

I visited Johnson at school not long before the final meeting. She hadn’t cooked or exercised in days. “I walked into my office after the union vote,” she said, “and I worried, You’re not going to be here next year, you’re not going to be here next year, and you’re not going to be here next year. Then I went to my class and tried to teach without crying.”

She had organized a working group and helped assemble a picket. Here, she thought, was a cause worth fighting for. Johnson and her colleagues had spent months in the trenches of the equity project, trying to transform Lowell into a stellar urban school that anyone in town could gain access to. And they had started to succeed. Now, instead of sharing the good, there had been a cursory equalizing of numbers, a dismantling of structures that had brought about real equity. “If you don’t have leaders willing to look beyond the gray area, beyond the outward number of ‘fair,’ ” she told me, glancing at the classroom around her, “you’re going to end up hurting the people that you’re trying to help.” ♦

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Lowell High School (San Francisco) admissions and application timeline for 2023–2024


By Erin July 12, 2022 in High School Admissions

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I'm working on an article about applying to Lowell High School (in San Francisco), and I'm gathering information about the process.

I've worked with a lot of students applying to Lowell for a couple of decades, so if you have any questions, let me know.

If you're not familiar with SFUSD high school applications, then it's important to note that you don't apply directly to Lowell per se; you apply to all SFUSD high schools at the same time and indicate Lowell as one of your choices.

If you're following the news, Lowell is abandoning the lottery system that was in place for two years, so they're back to merit-based admission.

I also have information about the 'band' system that Lowell uses, which I can post if anyone thinks it will help.

Lowell admissions timeline for students in 8th grade in the fall of 2022, applying to start in the fall of 2023

  • October 22, 2022: SFUSD high school applications available (including for Lowell High School).
  • December 16, 2022, 3:00 PM (PST): Applications due.
  • January 7, 2023 (Saturday), 8:30 AM or Jan 11, 2023 (Wednesday), 6:00 PM: Lowell admission test.
  • January 2023 (throughout the month) (for Bands 2 and 3): Students will write the Lowell admission essay at their school.
  • March 20-24, 2023: High school admissions decisions sent.
  • April 7, 2023: Deadline to decide on assignment offer.
  • 2023 fall: Start 9th grade at Lowell!

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Lowell High School

Lowell High School Logo

- From the Principal, Dr. Mike O. Jones.   Weekly Update for 3/22/2024

- bell schedules ,  a lunch and b lunch assignments - sbac testing schedule (linked here)  - monday 4-1-24 is a school holiday: cesar chavez day.

Lowell all staff photo

2023-24 Faculty & Staff

  • Administration
  • Physical Education
  • Social Science
  • Visual & Performing Arts
  • World Language
  • Learning Resources

image of a blue flower

Wellness Resources

Find important Wellness Resources here! (link)

Get Involved:  Lowell supports the Black Lives Matter movement

Lowell High School supports the Black Lives Matter movement.  We are proud of our students who have stepped up and created action items for our community.  Here are some ways you can be an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement  

Student Information System Logo

Student Family Logins to SIS Portals

StudentVUE Login  (find student schedule, assignments, and more here!) FamilyVue Login  (stay in touch with what is going on with your student(s)!)

Updating district communication preferences (text, phone, email) can be done using the Family Vue login. More information on that here

News for Families

Summer 2024 programming, 2024 graduation, lowell hs school profile, lowell events, sfusd academic calendar, more about this school, school type, estimated enrollment.

  • Michael Jones

Assistant Principal(s)

  • Isaac Alcantar
  • Jan Bautista
  • Matthew McDonell
  • Chris Lanier

The school building opens at 8:00 am and non-supervised students and clubs should clear the building by 4:30 pm.

Library hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday 8am - 5pm; Wednesday 8am - 2:30pm

School Tour

Tours occurred prior to the start of the current academic year.  There are no tour opportunities currently available.

Sign up for a school tour at .

Uniforms Policy

Neighborhood, transportation, school meals.

View menus at .

School Code

Founded in 1856 in San Francisco, Lowell High School is the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi. It is ranked as one of the highest performing public high schools in California, and has been recognized 4 times as a National Blue Ribbon School, 8 times as a California Distinguished School, and one time as a Gold Ribbon School. Lowell has been consistently ranked #1 in the Western Region for the number of Advanced Placement Exams given.

In addition, Lowell offers 100 active clubs and service organizations and a comprehensive athletic program, with 32 teams playing 27 sports. Our elective program boasts the largest Visual and Performing Arts Department in the city and a World Language Department of eight languages. All students have equal access to all classes, as well as academic and personal support through its Wellness, Peer Resources and CSF Tutoring Programs.

The curriculum is sequential to ensure high academic achievement, aligned with common core curriculum standards, graduation requirements, and A-G subject requirements for CSU/UC Admissions. Our commitment at Lowell is to prepare students for their next step in life. We develop opportunities for all stakeholders to participate in a meaningful way. Lowell's PTSA and Alumni are a vital part in maintaining Lowell's excellence.

Lowell High School’s mission is to encourage the individuals who attend to contribute their skills, creativity, and intellect to benefit both themselves and the wider community of which they are a part.

Underlying Lowell’s philosophy of education is the resolve that the young people of San Francisco continue to enjoy their traditional option of attending a college preparatory public high school. The emphasis requires an instructional program that promotes sound intellectual and aesthetic values while providing opportunities for self- discipline and individual decision-making. Lowell endeavors to create a just and equitable society where individual responsibilities are clearly defined and personal rights guaranteed. It endorses the concept of an integrated school where cultural and social diversity enrich the lives of all students.

Lowell's Expected Schoolwide Learning Results (ESLRs)

  • Build on acquired knowledge across the curriculum
  • Master the academic and participatory skills necessary for success
  • Explore real world connections to the curriculum

Creative and Critical Thinkers

  • Apply higher-order thinking skills to address issues across the curriculum
  • Develop models to aid in understanding complex problems
  • Evaluate the validity and credibility of claims, data, and sources

Effective Communicators

  • Listen actively, read analytically and critically, speak and write clearly and confidently
  • Use digital, print, and artistic media proficiently and with integrity
  • Interact with social media responsibly and constructively

Self-Directed Learners

  • Establish priorities and use time efficiently
  • Advocate for their educational experience and success
  • Practice habits of positive mental, physical, and social health
  • Act with honesty and integrity

Positive and Productive Citizens

  • Contribute time, energy, and talent to improve the quality of life locally and globally
  • Help promote an equitable and just society
  • Engage respectfully and civilly with people of varying backgrounds and perspectives

After School Programs

Language programs.

  • French World Language
  • Hebrew World Language
  • Italian World Language
  • Japanese World Language
  • Korean World Language
  • Latin World Language
  • Mandarin World Language
  • Spanish World Language

Special Education Programs

  • ACCESS - Adult Transition Services
  • Resource Specialist Program Services
  • Separate class - Mild/moderate
  • Separate class - Mild/moderate with autism focus
  • Separate class - Moderate/severe
  • Separate class - Moderate/severe with autism focus

School Day Academic Enrichment

  • Academic counseling
  • Advanced Placement (AP) classes
  • College classes at CCSF or SFSU
  • Honors classes
  • Internships available
  • Project-based learning
  • Student portfolios
  • Tutoring in school

Arts Enrichment

  • Architecture
  • Performing arts
  • Photography
  • Theater tech
  • Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA)
  • Visual arts
  • Cross country
  • Spirit Squad
  • Track and Field

Student Support Programs

  • Health and wellness center
  • On-site nurse
  • Peer resources

Career Technical Education Academies

  • Culinary Pathway

College Counseling

  • 100% College Prep
  • Cash for College or Financial Aid Night
  • College and/or career counseling
  • College and/or career fair
  • College application workshops
  • College tours and visits
  • Personal statement workshops
  • SFUSD Plan Ahead curriculum

Application Data

School accountability report card (sarc).

School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) are required by state law and are intended to provide families with important information.

School Accountability Highlights

Published annually by SFUSD to provide access to key data points and three-year trends related to student achievement and school culture-climate. The highlights are available in English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Filipino, and Vietnamese.

Social-Emotional and Culture Climate Report

SFUSD annually surveys families and school staff on a range of school climate indicators that have been found to predict positive student academic achievement. The social-emotional learning of students in grades 4-12 is also assessed.

School Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA)

School communities gather twice a year to review data and previous actions in order to intentionally plan for the coming months. The School Plan for Student Achievement is the template on which this review and stakeholder engagement process is codified.

Phone Number

Map showing the location of the school.

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July 17, 2022

Lowell High School Admissions Process

lowell high school application essay

In a sign of the times, Lowell High School, arguably the top public high school in the city of San Fransisco, has done away with a lottery-based admissions process it put in place during the pandemic. The school has reverted to a merit-based admissions process, one based on students’ grades and standardized test scores. Like at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, this marks a victory for students and parents who fought to restore the merit-based system, a system detractors argue hurts the chances of underrepresented minority students from attending the oldest public high school west of the Mississippi.

As Bloomberg ‘s editors write in an an op-ed entitled “ San Francisco’s School Decision Is Reason to Celebrate ,” “The dispute in San Francisco concerned the admissions policies of Lowell High School, whose alumni include three Nobel Prize winners and a retired Supreme Court justice. In October 2020, the city’s school board scrapped Lowell’s policy of admitting students on the basis of grades and standardized test scores, citing the difficulty of administering exams during the pandemic. The merit-based system was replaced by a citywide lottery, a longtime goal of progressives who say that selective admissions policies disproportionately harm Black and Latino applicants. In the first year of the lottery, the share of Latino and Black students in Lowell’s entering freshman class rose, while the proportion of Asian students fell.”

This extremely divisive issue — whether to instate a merit-based admissions system or more of a lottery-based system to top public high schools — has come to a head in recent months not only in San Fransisco and northern Virginia but also in New York City . The former system is largely supported by white and Asian American families, while the latter system is largely favored by Black and Latino families. Might we suggest a fair compromise — an admissions process that is both merit-based but also one that supports diversity? Perhaps certain slots in each of these schools can be designated for lottery seats while the vast majority are determined by students’ grades and standardized test scores?

What do our readers think? We’re sure you won’t be shy. Let us know your thoughts on the matter by posting a comment below. Why do we have a feeling the comments are about to skew super-conservative?

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San Francisco's Lowell High School admissions debate isn't over

Lowell high school admissions debate.

Lowell High School admissions debate.

SAN FRANCISCO - San Francisco Unified School District Supt. Matt Wayne will soon ask the school board to change how students are admitted to one of the city's top schools.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Wayne will ask the district's board of directors to change how students are accepted into Lowell High School. 

But that process won't be easy and he isn't looking to make changes anytime soon.

Wayne is proposing to base Lowell’s admission on a minimum grade point average. It would eliminate the current system, which relies on a qualifying test, special application and essay, and reserves spots for students from underrepresented middle schools.

If there are more interested and qualified students than openings,  then the same tie-breaker process used at other high schools would decide who gets in and who doesn’t, the Chronicle reports. 

That includes whether the student has a sibling at the school or lives in a neighborhood where standardized test scores are low.

The topic of admissions at Lowell continues to be a conversation for SFUSD.

Board members switched the process to a lottery system during the pandemic.

That led to public outroar, even becoming a reason to recall three school board members last year. 

The superintendent told the Chronicle he likes this new idea because he hopes it will get more students to qualify for the school and create a more diverse student body.

But he wants to give it time for discussion and a vote.

His ideas will be submitted to the district board members who will discuss it at their next meeting in about two weeks.

But changes wouldn't happen for at least another two years.  

The Student News Site of Lowell High School

Board of Education announces potential changes to Lowell admissions for the 2021-22 school year

Jacqueline Mei | October 9, 2020


A plan to implement a lottery system for Class of 2025 admissions to Lowell High School is currently being discussed by the San Francisco Board of Education, according to an email sent to Lowell parents and teachers this afternoon from Assistant Superintendent Bill Sanderson and Educational Placement Center Executive Director Jeff Kang. In past years, admission to Lowell through the selective band system has been largely based on GPA and standardized test scores. However, due to the cancellation of SBAC testing and the alternate “Credit/No Credit” grading system last semester, the District is unable to use the current admissions system. Under this new proposal, Lowell applicants would not have to meet any academic admissions requirements and would go through the same assignment process used for the majority of the District and described by Board Policy 5101 . In addition, Lowell would not accept any transfer students during the upcoming admissions cycle. “This policy is a response to the pandemic and the recommendation is that we do this [admissions system] for one year given current conditions,” Sanderson and Kang wrote in the official email announcement.

lowell high school application essay

The Board of Education plans to discuss this policy during their Committee of the Whole meeting on Oct. 13 at 3 p.m. At this meeting, there will be an allotted time for the public to voice their opinion on the new policy. In a subsequent board meeting on Oct. 20, the Board will vote on the issue. 

Many students are unsatisfied with the proposed policy. A junior, who wishes to remain anonymous, is concerned that this admissions system will lead to people who are unprepared for Lowell’s rigor to be accepted and ultimately attend. “Not everyone is capable of handling the stress [of Lowell], which is why there’s a testing or grading system to see which students are suitable for the standards and environment of Lowell,” the student said. “Lowell isn’t going to adapt to you. You adapt to Lowell, and if you can’t handle it, that’s on you.” Senior Supeng Wu also believes that the new admissions system will destroy Lowell’s “tradition of excellence.” In addition, he is disappointed that transfer students would not be considered. “As a transfer student myself, removing transfer admissions is definitely going to disappoint a lot of aspiring students,” he said. 

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Jay Li • Apr 22, 2023 at 10:22 pm

I agree with Supeng Wu’s thoughts, I think Lowell is a bad school that does not accept transfer students.

Stan Davis • Feb 26, 2021 at 4:57 pm

Let’s see. Harvard, MIT, Cal-Tech, and all the other elite schools should just change their admission to a lottery system.

Basketball team: equal numbers of Asians, Blacks, Browns, and Whites. Football team: equal numbers of Asians, Blacks, Browns, and Whites. Swimming team: equal numbers of Asians, Blacks, Browns, and Whites. Baseball, soccer, gymnastics, and all other activities should have equal numbers of Asians, Blacks, Browns, and Whites.

The above list does not exist. Only the best athletes can get into the team. This is also true for people who are smart in academics. If you were smart, you deserved to get into the best school! A lottery system is an excuse for athletes or students who can’t get into a top school.

Daniel Chan • Feb 10, 2021 at 6:14 pm

J. Monty Worth is spot on.

J. Monty Worth • Oct 18, 2020 at 9:02 pm

In response to Hank Smith’s post. I disagree that it is condescending to say that lottery admissions would ruin Lowell’s tradition of excellence. While some of the students admitted to Lowell in a lottery would end up being the same as students admitted by competitive entry, quite a few, probably the majority would not. Today all students admitted were either at a very high academic level compared to their peers or very hardworking or both. With a lottery there would be a random mix of all students who chose Lowell. That would make the entering class similar to that at the comprehensive high schools on the West side of SF, Washington and Lincoln. Hank Smith says they would still get a (hopefully excellent) Lowell education. I disagree. Part of an education is the quality of the teachers, but a more important element is the nature of one’s peers. I think that the latter is a greater factor than the former at Lowell. As you have probably noticed, there are both good and bad teachers at Lowell. I am not convinced that they are better than teachers at other schools. The teachers didn’t have to compete to get to Lowell (or at least they haven’t for the last twenty years). The students however did, so they are not the same as students at other schools. When you concentrate high level academic kids together, it changes things. It creates a different atmosphere, more academic competition, more sharing of ideas and comraderie among academic kids. I think that is the largest factor in what makes Lowell excellent. Imagine if you replaced all of the teachers at Lowell (including me). Would it still be Lowell? Yes. But if you ended competitive admissions, it would not be the same school. Teachers would find many more (if not most) students at a much lower academic level than they are currently. They would have to drop the amount and difficulty of their assignments. The students capable of more would not be pushed as far. I have taught at other schools and I had to aim at the median level of the class. When I came to Lowell I learned to raise the bar of expectations, because students are capable of much more. Some suggest that teachers can teach to all different parts of the class, but that is unrealistic. Teachers only have so much time. If Lowell becomes a comprehensive high school the most academic kids in SF will no longer have a place, so they will go to whatever high school is closest to them and they will be really bored and not sufficiently challenged for four years and they will be far less prepared for university. As they say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. That is why I think ending competitive admissions would be a big mistake, even for one year. I also think that this has nothing to do with Covid. Several members of the school board who are very ideological have wanted to end all competitive admissions in San Francisco. They are using the excuse of the pandemic to make the change for one year, knowing it will be much easier to keep it that way once that year is over.

Corn • Oct 15, 2020 at 10:06 pm

There is no such thing as the “cream of the crop”. Treat people like they have value and they will respond accordingly.

Anonymous • Oct 11, 2020 at 10:07 pm

Agree that banning transfer students is unfair. Can see both sides, but don’t think the lottery system is the way to go as a permanent solution. We have schools specialized in the arts; why is it wrong to have specialized schools for STEM or schools like Lowell? While I agree that the overall admission process can be improved to help those with less means, it isn’t right to tear one minority down to bring others up. Everyone cares about education. Keep the test and norm it within socio-economic groups, not ethnicities (what SATs did contrary to public belief, now phased out/ banned).

Unfortunately, Lowell High did have condescending admissions standards in the past. It was in an honest effort to help diversify the students, but I do not think it was the right message to send. “By 1993, Chinese-American applicants to the school were being required to score a 66 on a 69-point scale designed to weigh their grades and test scores, meaning their recent report cards had to have almost all A’s. Whites and other Asians, on the other hand, got in with a 59–which allowed for a few C’s–and blacks and Hispanics were being admitted with scores of 56, or even lower if they were deemed to have high potential.”

Also, this district had an infamous Asian quota/cap…“Under the 1983 consent decree, the school system designated children as belonging to one of nine racial or ethnic groups: Hispanic, other white, black, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, American Indian, and other non-white. The district’s enrollment guidelines stipulated that no group shall account for more than 45 percent of the enrollment at a regular school or 40 percent at an alternative school such as Lowell.”

Ho vs. SFUSD ended this discrimination.

Check out what’s going on with other high schools:

New York Specialized Schools: Plans to decrease Asians from 50% to 30% *Discovery Programs purposefully exclude schools with large Asian demographic

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology Class of 2024: Plans to decrease Asians from 73% to 54%$file/TJHSST%20Admissions%20Merit%20Lottery%20Proposal.pdf TJ Student Krushi Bhaswith “Suresh began a website to help students who are preparing to take the test, and he feels initiatives, such as his, taken by the school system would better help achieve the goal of a more diverse school community…Suresh said that while he opposes the lottery system, he does support Brabrand’s call for a $100 application fee to become a thing of the past.” Petition: Asra Nomani, single mom, and TJ students placed their voices out there: (Be careful of Twitter, topic is a really difficult one… Both sides are arguing for what they believe to be the right thing to do)

Patrick I. Emelife, M.D. • Oct 10, 2020 at 11:46 am

Unfortunately, meritocracy—which most people define as good grades and good test scores—is woefully incomplete. All it does is select for students who perform well on exams. Additionally, many students of low socioeconomic status do not have the same resources as their wealthier peers. Moreover, these exams just perpetuate the cultural capital of the people in power. Additionally, data shows that these great test takers are not necessarily the people who become the best professionals or leaders in the world. As a Black graduate of Lowell, who also graduated from CCSF before transferring to Stanford University, I know that minorities also deserve to be admitted to Lowell. They, too, would benefit from being around bright students and awesome teachers. As a physician who sat on the admissions committee for medical school, plastic surgery residency, and anesthesiology residency, I can assure you that the merits of students of low socioeconomic status are NOT captured in most applications. How do you measure grit, perseverance, honesty, integrity, respect, or management skills—in which many students of low SES excel due to their unique circumstances? These students also offer new ideas and diverse perspectives to the classroom and work environment. The admissions process can be greatly improved. Meritocracy, solely based on grades and test scores, is not an adequate way to assess which students are the “cream of the crop.” Also, please read the following article, which show the real life consequences of skewed admissions:

Hank Smith • Oct 10, 2020 at 12:21 am

While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, implying that a lottery system would ruin Lowell’s “tradition of excellence” is extremely condescending. Whether pupils are admitted via a lottery, or an admissions process, if they are attending Lowell, they will receive a “Lowell education”.

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