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Admissions Policy for S.F.'s Top Public Schools Debated

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The demand for admission to San Francisco's top college-preparatory public school has grown so intense that the superintendent is recommending that a new admissions policy--possibly favoring public school students--be developed for all of the city's alternative high schools.

Superintendent Waldemar (Bill) Rojas first floated the idea of a policy change last month amid rising concern that the number of high-achieving Chinese-American students in the San Francisco Unified School District is outstripping the district's ability to find places for them in its most rigorous academic programs.

"The trend has been that the gap is widening between the performance of Chinese youngsters and others,'' Mr. Rojas said in an interview last week.7

Because schools in financially hard-pressed California are underfunded, Mr. Rojas said, he has "no qualms'' about giving students applying to the special high schools from public schools preference over those who attend private or religious schools.

"Public school youngsters in this city and state are at an economic disadvantage,'' Mr. Rojas asserted, noting that the district has had to cut its budget six years in a row.

He added, however, that no new admissions policy would be devised without public hearings and checking with the court that oversees the district's school-desegregation case.

But Mr. Rojas's suggested policy change has already raised hackles in the city's private school community.

"The public schools should be open to everybody,'' said Shirley Merrill, the principal of West Portal Lutheran School.

Ms. Merrill pointed out that parents who can afford to pay the typical tuition of $2,400 a year for a private elementary school may be unable to pay the $5,000 typically charged by private high schools.

Caps and Cutoff Scores

Under the district's desegregation consent decree, members of one racial or ethnic group cannot occupy more than 40 percent of the slots in the five alternative high schools.

Students are admitted to top-rated Lowell High School--considered a sure ticket to a good college--based on a point system determined by their grades and their scores on standardized tests. It is the only San Francisco public school that uses such a policy.

But because the number of Chinese-American students seeking spots at Lowell is so great, the cutoff score for those students was set this year at an all-time high of 66 out of a possible 69 points.

White, Japanese, and Filipino applicants were required to have scores of 59, while blacks and Latinos qualified with scores of 56.

Of the 1,656 applicants for spots at Lowell High next fall, 682 were Chinese, 355 were white, 157 were Hispanic, and 77 were black. The remaining students were members of other racial or ethnic groups.

Advocacy groups representing the Chinese-American community argue that the use of a higher cutoff score for Chinese-Americans is unfair, because it excludes dozens of qualified Chinese students.

"What that really has meant is a Chinese applicant cannot afford to have any slip-up,'' Henry Der, the executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, said last week. "This puts an undue amount of pressure on Chinese students to do better than anybody else.''

When many high-achieving Chinese students found out this spring that they would not be admitted to Lowell High because of the enrollment caps, their parents protested.

After studying the consent decree, Mr. Rojas decided he could raise the cap on Chinese-American students at Lowell to 45 percent. He then admitted all of the qualified applicants who had attended public schools. Students who had gone to private schools were placed on a waiting list.

Eventually, about 160 more Chinese-Americans from both public and private schools were admitted.

"All the public and private students who were Chinese with scores of 61 or above have been let in,'' Mr. Rojas said.

Good Schools in Demand

The decision to admit more Chinese-American students means that Lowell's freshman class will have more than 800 students in the fall, which will contribute to space problems at the overcrowded school, according to officials. The total enrollment is about 3,000 students.

Superintendent Rojas said he agrees with advocacy groups that a new admissions process should be established for all five alternative high schools. Some now use a lottery system, which he said might be an alternative for Lowell if it included other eligibility criteria.

"This must be fixed on a policy basis that tells the children there is some system of equity,'' he said, "and even if it won't have the same requirements, it's not some adult telling them, 'You achieved but still couldn't go.'''

The superintendent noted that Chinese-American students also have reached the enrollment caps at the other four alternative high schools in the city, which have varying admissions policies. They are also approaching the 45 percent cap in two comprehensive high schools.

Mr. Der said his group believes that the same cutoff score should be used for Chinese-American, white, Japanese, and Filipino students seeking places at Lowell High. Then, he said, the district should select students by lottery while staying within the consent-decree guidelines.

The competition for places in the school has made for some ill feelings between Chinese parents and parents of other minority students, Mr. Der noted, particularly because many of the students who are classified as being "other nonwhites'' are actually ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

"The caps are not a problem,'' he said. "Chinese have found ways to get into these schools. The question is whether we create more [good schools], because the demand is so great.''

But Ronald Quan, a member of the education committee of the Chinese American Democratic Club, said his group believes that the caps are unfair because Chinese students are being denied admission to schools because of their race.

Mr. Quan argued that the admissions policies go beyond desegregating the district, as required by the court, to "artificially'' creating diversity in each school.

The number of ethnic Chinese students in the San Francisco system has increased from about 18 percent in 1983, when the consent decree began, to about 26 percent today, Mr. Quan noted. But at the high school level, because black and Latino youths drop out in greater numbers, there is a greater proportion of Chinese-American students.

Neither Mr. Quan nor Mr. Der said he would support a process giving preference to public school students.

Mr. Rojas agreed that the best solution is to create better schools systemwide, but he said that would be difficult given the budget crisis.

"It's simple to say, 'Fix all the high schools,' and that is certainly is always the goal,'' he said. "But that doesn't happen over night.''

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