San Francisco School Board Votes to Return Elite High School to Merit-Based Admissions

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The San Francisco school board voted 4-3 Wednesday night to return Lowell High School to a merit-based admissions system, two years after it first switched to a lottery-based system.

Beginning with freshman entering in fall 2023, test scores and grades will be used to admit students to Lowell, barring any other changes by the board, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The board first voted in favor of a switch to the lottery system in October 2020 because they said remote learning created a lack of academic data on which to base admissions decisions.

Four months later, the board made the decision to permanently switch to a lottery system in an effort to address alleged racism and a lack of diversity at the elite academic school. That vote faced a legal challenge, which ended in a judge ruling that the district had violated laws related to the Brown Act that regulate public meetings. 

The board reversed the decision to permanently instate lottery-based admissions and then extended the lottery process for another year.

In a separate vote Wednesday, the board overrode a previous decision to cover up a mural of George Washington at Washington High School. Social justice activists petitioned to have the mural covered in 2019 on the grounds that it perpetuates racism because it depicts slaves and the body of a dead Native American. A judge had ordered the decision to cover the mural “void” on the grounds that the board failed to conduct an environmental impact report before voting on the move.

The latest vote comes months after San Francisco voters recalled three progressive school board members in a February election. The recall movement was driven by parent concern that the board was more concerned with social justice than reopening schools during the pandemic, recall organizers said at the time.

Those who supported the lottery system argued it had increased diversity in the school, which has historically had a high number of white and Asian American students.

The president of the San Francisco Alliance of Black Educator, Virginia Marshall, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the lottery system “means Lowell is diverse.”

“It is not just for one ethnic group. It’s for all students who choose to make Lowell their home,” added Marshall, who is also a representative of the NAACP.

However, the board rejected Superintendent Vince Matthews’ recommendation to keep the lottery in place for another year. He warned there would be significant challenges to returning to a merit-based system before the enrollment season begins in the fall, according to the report.

Yet supporters of the merit system say the city’s students deserve an academically rigorous environment where admission is based on hard work and academic achievement.

A return to a merit-based system could face legal challenges under a state law that prohibits academic criteria in admission to comprehensive high schools, the outlet reported.

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