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New Admissions Policy Sought for S.F. School

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San Francisco's schools superintendent has proposed modifying the criteria for entrance to the city's prestigious Lowell High School in hopes of ending a bitter debate over its race-based admissions policy.

The plan released this month by Superintendent Waldemar Rojas would admit 80 percent of the school's students through a traditional point system based on academic achievement. All those students, regardless of race or ethnicity, would have to meet the same cutoff point for a combination of grade-point average and test scores.

The other 20 percent would be admitted to Lowell based on other criteria that would expand the pool of eligible applicants and enhance diversity in the school's enrollment, said Gail Kaufman, the spokeswoman for the 63,000-student district.

For example, she added, a student who did not meet the minimum academic requirements but came from a disadvantaged background could be admitted under the proposed policy.

The school board is expected to vote on the superintendent's plan at its Feb. 23 meeting. School officials hope to use the new policy in March to judge applicants for the 1996-97 school year, Ms. Kaufman said.

The admissions policy at the flagship school has long been a sore spot with many of the city's Chinese-American parents, who say it discriminates against children of Chinese descent by holding them to higher standards than those for other minority groups.

Last year, a group of parents filed a lawsuit challenging the ethnic-enrollment quotas in a 1983 consent decree in the district's ongoing school-desegregation case. (See Education Week, Oct. 11, 1995.)

Because of their relatively large numbers and high level of achievement, students of Chinese descent have a more difficult time finding slots in schools of their choice, the lawsuit claims.

The suit singled out the higher standards for Chinese applicants at Lowell, which are intended to limit the number of such students at the school. About 40 percent of the students enrolled this year are Chinese-American.

About 85 percent of the district's students are members of minority groups, including nearly 50 percent who are of Asian or Pacific Island descent.

'Equity and Quality'

Mr. Rojas announced his intention to change the admissions criteria at Lowell High after months of discussions with the community leaders, parents, and school employees appointed to the district task force charged with reviewing the policy.

"The time has come to address these issues head-on and make the hard but necessary educational and political decisions," the schools chief said in a statement this month.

School and community leaders praised the plan last week, saying they believed the bitter fight over the admissions policy was taking a turn for the better.

Currently, students from different racial and ethnic groups must meet varying cutoff points, which were set by the district in an attempt to meet the guidelines of its federal desegregation order, Ms. Kaufman said. When placing students, the district considers their grade-point averages in the 7th and 8th grades, and their scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

But the criticism of such standards led the district to the soul-searching process over its policies. Some local leaders who have long advocated changes in admissions criteria also hailed the superintendent's proposal.

Seeking Diversity

"This is a big step forward, and it's long overdue," said Henry Der, the executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, a local parents' group, and a member of the district's Lowell task force. He also praised the superintendent's "recognition that there needs to be changes in the school culture" at Lowell, where high expectations have created a crushing environment for some students.

"Many kids can benefit from a Lowell education--not just those with the [high] grades or test scores," Mr. Der added.

Under the new policy, 20 percent of Lowell's students would be admitted based on consideration of such factors as socioeconomic status, homelessness or residency in public housing, poverty, family hardship or illness, and participation in extracurricular activities.

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