Soon after, four school board commissioners and two student delegates drafted a resolution titled “In Response to Ongoing, Pervasive Systemic Racism at Lowell High School.” They wrote that Lowell’s merit-based admissions process “perpetuates segregation and exclusion” and that black and brown students “do not feel physically, emotionally or culturally safe and valued at Lowell.” Included in the resolution is a call for an “equity audit” that will create a plan to address racism at Lowell. The school board had already decided to use temporarily a lottery admissions system for Lowell last October, but the February vote made it permanent.
Two commissioners (out of seven) voted against the resolution. One of them, Jenny Lam, a second-generation Chinese American, pointed out recent anti-Asian attacks in the Bay Area and urged the board to consider other community voices as well. The other opposing commissioner, Kevine Boggess, who’s black, said he too experienced “anti-blackness and institutional racism” during his school days at San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). But he wondered if focusing on Lowell’s admissions without broader community input would achieve equity across the district: “How do we make sure every student who wants access to a class that’s offered at Lowell … has access to that?”
Equity was also on Huayllasco’s mind as he observed other Lowell alumni discuss the board’s resolution on Facebook. He saw former classmates vehemently argue that the new admissions policy is anti-Asian, that it’ll “dumb down” academic standards at Lowell—and once again, he wrestled with that familiar inner conflict he felt at high school.
Huayllasco’s parents taught him diligence, personal responsibility, and fairness. He attributeshis great education at Lowell mostly to the social climate: Like grains of rice speed-steaming inside a pressure cooker, being around highly motivated, academically excelling classmates challenged him to study harder, reach higher. He credits Lowell for preparing him for the University of California, Berkeley, and for his Wall Street career—and he wants those same opportunities for others like him.
But as he observed the impassioned chatter among Lowell alumni, Huayllasco also felt the familiar “Oh, I’ll prove you all wrong!” indignation that used to spring up when people questioned his place at Lowell. Many of his Latino friends didn’t get the quality education he did—not because they weren’t smart or didn’t work hard, but because their families didn’t have the knowledge and resources to blast open paths of opportunities as his did. What does equity look like for those kids?
“There’s no quick fix. This is a societal problem that’s been going on for a long time.”
EQUITY ADVOCATES say inequitable systems exist by design. Like other districts, San Francisco’s school district has a history of systemic racism that created disparities persisting to this day. The first public schools opened in 1851 were only for white children. California law prohibited nonwhite students from attending white public schools. Explicitly segregated schools, along with redlining maps, continued until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that “separate education facilities are inherently unequal.”
But segregation persisted for more than a decade longer in San Francisco (and many other cities). SFUSD tried a busing program to integrate schools, but black and lower-income families noticed it was mostly their kids being ferried across town, whereas middle-class white and Asian students found ways to attend schools within their own neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the white student population dropped by more than 30,000 between the mid-1960s to late 1970s as white families moved out.
In 1978 the NAACP and a group of black parents sued the district and the state, accusing them of maintaining school segregation. In 1983 the NAACP and the district reached a court-approved settlement (called a consent decree) that set racial quotas in schools and called for increased resources for historically neglected schools. The consent decree was partly successful in desegregating many schools, but disparities in academic performance persisted. By the 1990s segregation had increased again as Latino and Asian populations burgeoned while the white population dipped.
In 1994 a group of Chinese American parents sued the district, upset that SFUSD assigned their children to schools outside their neighborhoods. They settled in court in 1999: SFUSD could no longer consider race or ethnicity in student assignments. The district then decided to use a lottery system to assign students to schools, focusing on race-neutral factors such as socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and test scores. The idea was that allowing more choice for families would break down class and racial barriers to high-demand schools. But segregation and inequities continued.
In 2011 the school board tweaked the lottery: Families ranked their choices of any school in the district. Again, the opposite happened: San Francisco’s schools are more racially segregated today than they were 30 years ago. The district didn’t factor in the numerous preexisting disparities between families. Parents working two to three jobs, low-income single parents, and those who don’t know how the system works fell behind parents who had the time, resources, and connections to go on multiple school tours and navigate the complicated application process. As a result, more upper- and middle-class children than poor children enrolled in desirable schools.