San Francisco's academically selective Lowell High School will admit students using a random lottery for next year's freshman class, a decision made unanimously by the school board Tuesday after a divisive community debate.
Lowell has for decades admitted students based on a score that takes into account grade-point average and test results while setting aside a limited number of spots for qualified students from underrepresented schools, making it one of the best public high schools in the country.
Because of the pandemic, however, there are no letter grades available from the spring due to a switch to a pass/fail system after the pandemic forced schools to close. In addition, the state canceled standardized tests.
The change applies to the next admission cycle only, although several board members expressed interest in extending the change permanently.
The school offers a wide array of Advanced Placement courses, foreign languages and other opportunities, some of which are not available at other district high schools.
The debate over what to do about the lack of traditional merit criteria divided the city, with accusations of racism and elitism after community members said the lottery system would water down Lowell's reputation. Others expressed concern for the students who have focused on academics so they could attend the school.
A public informational meeting last week resulted in chaos and interruptions and was followed by threats to student board member Shavonne Foster-Hines, after she was shouted down while commenting about the proposal.
"Unfortunately, this heated discussion couldn't come at a worse time. The pandemic continues to isolate us," said the Lowell PTSA in a statement. "Ongoing racial injustice angers us. … We all are enduring a difficult — perhaps the most difficult — chapter in our collective history."
The PTSA members, however, criticized the school board for rushing the decision, voting on the proposal less than two weeks after presenting it to the public. They said they were neutral on the lottery idea.
Board member Stevon Cook urged the public to remember that the great thing about the district and the city is that there are opportunities everywhere.
"This was in response to the pandemic and it's become a discussion about race and diversity as well as the culture at Lowell and the negative experiences that black students have experienced," he said, adding those are issues to be dealt with. But for Tuesday's vote, he said: "We are here today because of the pandemic."
District officials said they were under time pressure to adjust the admissions policy for Lowell, given that information about school assignment needs to go out to families, with the first deadline for enrollment preferences Feb. 5.
The admission process will now mirror that at other district high schools, with priority given to siblings, those attending Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, and those living in census tracts where students post low test scores.
The remaining spots will be assigned randomly. About 900 students are admitted each year, with about 650 students enrolled in each freshman class.
Lowell chemistry teacher Jonathan Fong supported the decision, saying he welcomed any student who attends Lowell.
"They belong there," he said. "Sometimes change brings about new opportunities."
Resident Howard Hsu strongly disagreed with the decision.
"Real life doesn't give out awards for just showing up," he said. "Not everyone gets into UC Berkeley or Harvard."
Others applauded the decision.
"It's way past time that we have only one high-performing high school," said Diane Gray, a Lowell graduate. "All of our high schools demonstrate high academic and artistic standards."
Jill Tucker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @jilltucker
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