50% drop in blacks, Latinos at Lowell: 50 percent fewer will be admitted than in `98

(03-16) 04:00 PST SAN FRANCISCO — The number of blacks and Latinos accepted to prestigious Lowell High School next fall has plummeted by 50 percent from fall 1998, raising serious questions about how to maintain diversity without using race in admissions.

At the same time, offers to Chinese American and white students has jumped considerably, confirming predictions that Lowell, one of the top public schools in California, will become increasingly white and Asian American.

The changes are a result of a settlement reached in February that bars The City’s public schools from using race as a factor in admissions. The Lowell numbers show the formidable challenge the district faces as it wades tentatively into a color-blind admissions era.

Prevented from considering race or ethnicity, the district hoped to maintain diversity at Lowell by awarding extra points to students from low-income and otherwise disadvantaged families. Lowell, which is the only high school in the district to require an admissions test to gain access, is the top feeder school to UC in the state.

So for the first time, the district gave bonus points to Lowell applicants who come from single-parent families, augmenting a system of points already in place taking economic hardship into account.

Instead of helping blacks and Latinos, however, the new

“added value” points system made more Chinese American and white students eligible.

More than twice as many Chinese American and white students received offers through the “value-added” point system this year over last. By contrast, 56 fewer Latinos and 28 fewer blacks got in through value-added points this year compared with last.

School administrators attributed that to the traditionally high number of white and Chinese American applicants to Lowell compared with students of other races.

Among notable changes in offers made to students, by ethnicity, in fall 1999 compared with those made in fall 1998:

  • 17 black students were accepted for 1999, compared with 44 black students this past fall.
  • 47 Latinos qualified for admission, compared with 90 last fall.
  • 394 Chinese Americans were offered seats, compared with 312 last fall.
  • 233 white students qualified this year, compared with 186 last year.
  • 109 “other nonwhite” – which includes Samoan and Vietnamese – were offered seats for the fall.

    Lowell makes between 825 and 850 offers for freshman admission every year, knowing that between 600 and 625 students will accept.

    Of the offers made to students for fall 1999, 65.3 percent went to Asian Americans, 26.97 percent to whites, 5.4 percent to Latinos and 1.97 percent to blacks. For fall 1998, Asian Americans received 58.8 percent of the offers, whites received 23.57 percent, Latinos received 11.41 percent and blacks received 5.57 percent.

    According to the terms of the February settlement, the district has until Sept. 20 to craft a new enrollment plan that will govern not only Lowell but all district schools beginning in fall 2000.

    “We are working on finding ways to continue diversity in our schools,” said Jennie Horn, who oversees Lowell admissions. “It’s very tricky. We’re doing number crunching and simulations and studies. With Lowell, we tried every which angle, incorporating every factor other than race.”

    The district considered, for example, giving value-added points to Lowell applicants who lived in the Mission District, Bernal Heights or Visitation Valley. After doing a demographic study of neighborhoods, however, the district discovered this would do little to boost the ranks of blacks and Latinos, Horn said.

    “Then, the superintendent said, “Why don’t we look at kids with single parents?’ So, we did that for the first time this year,” Horn said.

    Still, she said, it didn’t help the most underrepresented groups.

    “We need to do more recruitment and outreach in certain communities,” Horn said. “We’ve had low numbers of Latino and African Americans applying. We know that certain groups, especially Chinese Americans, are good at working the Lowell admissions’ process. They have always been the most aggressive and progressive in applying.”

    San Francisco PTA President Carol Kocivar, a member of the Lowell admissions committee, said relying on social and economic factors to increase enrollment of blacks and Latinos wasn’t enough.

    “The district and the community must work very hard to help youngsters become eligible,” Kocivar said. “That means starting from the beginning. If we don’t have these kids in the 50th percentile by the third grade, we can’t expect them to be Lowell-eligible by the eighth grade.”

    Indeed, the pool of candidates with a perfect score of 69 on a scale of 0-to-69 on admissions tests to Lowell grows every year. Currently, between 70 and 80 percent of students are admitted solely on their test scores and grades. The remaining 20 to 30 percent have slightly lower grades, but earn the compensating value-added points – based on, for example, a child’s residing in public housing or qualifying for reduced-price lunch.

    In 1997-98, there were 131 students with a perfect 69. In 1998-99, there were 147 perfect scores. This year, there were 158. Achieving a perfect 69 requires a student to have earned straight A’s and score in the 97th to 100th percentile on district exams.

    “Going through the files, sitting in the Lowell conference room, we were saying, “Oh, good, a poverty,’ ” said Marsha Cohen, a law professor at Hastings College of the Law who serves as chair of Lowell’s admissions committee.

    “I’m a believer in giving poor kids a benefit,” Cohen said. “But what I’ve found eyeballing files for the last three years is that poverty knows no racial lines. There were a lot more poor Chinese kids who were getting these extra points than blacks or Latinos.”

    Since 1983, San Francisco’s public schools have been governed by a federal consent decree requiring them to enroll students through a rigid racial formula: No more than 45 percent of students at any school could be of one race, and at least four ethnic groups had to be represented at each school.

    Chinese American families brought a lawsuit against the district, the state and the NAACP because their children were being kept out of prized schools – notably Lowell – because of the racial quota system.

    A plaintiff in the suit, Charlene Wong Loen, saw her son Patrick Wong denied admission to Lowell because the school had reached its quota of Chinese Americans.

    “Using racial preferences is not doing these kids any favor,” said Wong Loen. “Yes, there’s now a drop in offers made to blacks and Latinos. But offers should be made on merit. In the long range, when you apply for a job, don’t you think you should get it on merit?”

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