Cursed by Success

By Peter Schmidt — April 05, 1995 26 min read
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San Franciscans have long regarded Lowell High School as their children’s ticket to college admission and future success. The school has always had a reputation for academic excellence. Its graduates, drawn from throughout this ethnically diverse city, routinely enter top colleges and emerge as leaders in their respective fields.

Recently, however, Lowell has gained another reputation--as a racial and ethnic battleground. The clashes here are not marked by the exchange of slurs or blows. Rather, they consist of intense debate between San Franciscans with profoundly different backgrounds and values. The dispute is over which students--or, specifically, which kinds of students--deserve to be admitted to this prestigious public school. Many parents believe their children’s futures are at stake.

Like San Francisco’s other public schools, Lowell, which sits tucked in the city’s Sunset District, must comply with a school-desegregation order that bars it from admitting too many students from any one of nine designated racial or ethnic groups.

Unlike most of the district’s other schools, Lowell is viewed as offering a better education than many expensive private academies, and throngs of doting parents clamor to get their children in.

To maintain a diverse student body at Lowell, the district requires children of Chinese descent--by far the largest pool of applicants--to meet more stringent entrance requirements than whites and other Asians, who, in turn, are held to higher admissions standards than black or Hispanic children.

In a lawsuit being argued in U.S. District Court, a group of Chinese-American parents have challenged the school system’s admissions policies as discriminatory.

The case has pitted black and Chinese civil-rights activists against each other and sent rifts through these and other minority communities.

Carol Kocivar, the acting head of a district panel asked to rethink the admissions policy, sees the conflict as a clash between two firmly held American values, one demanding social justice and compensation for the oppressed, the other seeking fair rewards for merit and hard work.

Paul Cheng, Lowell’s principal, says the controversy reminds him of the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” “These are interesting times,” he says wryly. “For Lowell, and for public education.”

Like the Chinese-American parents who sued the district, Lowell High, which was founded in 1856, appears to be cursed by its own success. Its problems arise from the fact it is regarded as the San Francisco district’s flagship school. As such, it has been placed in the same league as Boston Latin, the Bronx High School of Science, and other renowned public secondary schools with tough admissions standards or the good fortune to exist in moneyed suburbs.

Lowell’s collection of old yearbooks reads like a chronicle of the American dream, with photographs capturing the sons and daughters of immigrants on their way to becoming American luminaries. Journalist Pierre Salinger got his diploma here, as did cartoonist Rube Goldberg, sculptor Alexander Calder, animal researcher Dian Fossey, biographer Irving Stone, and former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown. The school has produced Nobel Laureates, members of Congress, ambassadors, business tycoons, and a host of college presidents and prominent judges, including U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer, whose peers in the class of 1955 had the foresight to dub him “most likely to succeed.”

Nearly all of the school’s graduates head off to college, with a sizable majority enrolling in four-year programs. More than two out of five members of the class of 1993 enrolled in the University of California system, and several entered the Ivy League.

“With my parents, going to college is expected. It is a given,” says Vincent H. Ma, a senior who recalls a teacher telling him he could not get into Stanford University with a diploma from any of the city’s other public high schools.

Lowell competes with the area’s private and parochial schools in recruiting students, especially white children from affluent families or talented black and Hispanic students who would further the other schools’ efforts to diversify enrollments. At the same time, it turns away large numbers of applicants who live in other districts and falsely claim San Francisco addresses.

Cheng seldom encounters the fighting, vandalism, and other disciplinary problems that vex principals at other urban high schools. Students here show little fear of being branded as “nerds” for excelling academically.

“You don’t have the kinds of situations where kids come into classrooms and are not attentive. By and large, they are very motivated,” Cheng says.

Visitors here find long rows of students sitting in the corridors and studying during their free periods. Last year, Lowell ranked eighth among the nation’s high schools in the number of Advanced Placement exams administered to students; and nearly nine out of 10 students earned at least a passing grade on the exams.

Keith Jew, the manager of a store in the city’s Chinatown area, says his son, a Lowell senior, “has good study habits because he has good friends,” boys who enjoy playing chess and have their sights set on elite colleges.

“They all study very hard. They are a good influence,” Jew says.

Larry Zemansky, a Haight-Ashbury-area resident with a daughter and a son at Lowell, praises the school for stressing academics rather than the “gang warfare” or “political correctness” he thinks his children would encounter elsewhere.

Those connected to this school are proud of its tradition of excellence and have vigorously fought past efforts to lower its standards or its elitist image. Their pride may continue to stand in the way of resolving the school’s current problems, according to Paul B. Warren, who, as dean of the University of San Francisco’s school of education, was appointed in 1993 to head a district committee asked to help resolve the controversy. Warren says the alumni, parent representatives, and teachers on the committee staunchly resisted proposals to adopt a lottery-based admissions system, attach less value to test scores, or open a satellite school with the Lowell name.

About the only criticism of Lowell commonly heard from within is that the school is too competitive, with students putting each other under even more pressure than they get at home. “We often try to get good grades instead of learning,” complains Johnny Niemann, a senior.

A substantial number of Lowell students leave the school each year because they feel burned out or believe transferring elsewhere will bolster their grade-point averages and their college-admissions prospects. Because black and Hispanic students are the most likely to leave, and Chinese-Americans usually stay, the school’s attrition patterns hinder its efforts to maintain diversity.

The school’s efforts to maintain a diverse student body are also stymied by the fact that successful black and Hispanic applicants have been less likely than those from other groups to enroll. Xochitl Benson, a senior from the city’s Excelsior District, says many children in her heavily Hispanic neighborhood are afraid to apply to Lowell because “they don’t think they will be able to handle it.”

If Lowell’s admissions requirements are biased in favor of blacks and Hispanics, it hardly showed last month during an open house for the school’s parents. Almost all of the families that toured the building that night were Asian or white.

“Everywhere I go I only see Chinese or whites,” complains Michelle Chang, a Lowell junior. “I don’t see much diversity in my life.”

Chinese, who account for 25 percent of the district’s overall enrollment, continue to make up nearly 43 percent of Lowell’s student body, not including the ethnic Chinese who came to San Francisco after fleeing Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Some local civil-rights leaders want these ethnic Chinese, who now are called “other nonwhite,” to be included in the Chinese count. Whites, who have largely abandoned most other district schools, continue to be somewhat overrepresented at Lowell, as do members of other Asian groups.

Black students, on the other hand, make up just 4.5 percent of Lowell’s population, despite accounting for 18.4 percent of the district’s enrollment. Latinos account for just over 20 percent of the school system’s total enrollment but only 9.3 percent of the Lowell student body. These two groups have always been underrepresented at Lowell, even though the school has always enrolled students from all of the city’s various ethnic neighborhoods.

For its first 100 years, Lowell mainly took in Italians from North Beach, Irish kids from south of Market Street, and a widely distributed population of Jewish children whose forebears had escaped persecution in Europe. The school also enrolled many Japanese-American children from the old homes around Fillmore Street, but that community was virtually wiped out by the nation’s internment policy during World War II.

As of 1955, most of the seniors in the Lowell yearbook had last names like Byrne, Fabiano, and Helmsdoerfer. A decade later, reforms in the nation’s immigration laws opened the Golden Door to more non-Europeans and began to change the face of San Francisco and its schools. Chinese, especially, flocked to the city, moving from Chinatown out into the city’s mostly white Richmond and Sunset districts and other areas. By 1980, Lowell’s enrollment had become overwhelmingly Asian--and nearly half Chinese--and the yearbook listed dozens of Chows, Lees, and Wongs.

The Bay Area’s shipyards had been drawing large numbers of African-Americans to the city ever since the 1940’s. Their children, however, tended to be concentrated in public schools with reputations quite opposite to that of Lowell.

In 1978, the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People sued the district, charging that it racially segregated its schools. Five years later, a federal court approved an agreement between the two sides that still governs district policy today.

Under the 1983 consent decree, the school system designated children as belonging to one of nine racial or ethnic groups: Hispanic, other white, black, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, American Indian, and other non-white. The district’s enrollment guidelines stipulated that no group shall account for more than 45 percent of the enrollment at a regular school or 40 percent at an alternative school such as Lowell.

For the remainder of the decade, Lowell kept its same high standards for white and Asian students and fostered diversity by enrolling black and Hispanic children with slightly lower scores. Then, in 1991, its Chinese enrollment threatened to burst through the cap, prompting the school to raise the admissions requirements for this group. As increasing numbers of qualified Chinese-American children continued to apply, Lowell raised its standards for them twice more over the next two years.

Joan E. Catelli, a Lowell guidance counselor, says some of the school’s current Chinese-American students object to being held to higher admissions standards and resent the fact they are excluded from various programs designed to help keep other minority groups in the school. “They are just looking at the time they have put in, and the pressure on them, and what they have given up to get the good grades,” Catelli says.

Lena C. Gutekunst, a Lowell senior of Mexican, Irish, and German descent, says, “I think there is a lot of tension within the school because of it.” Her black and Hispanic friends, she says, often feel that the school’s Asians view them as less intelligent and expect them to fail.

But Michael and Debra Lombardo, two parents who attended the recent open house, support the tiered admissions standards. Michael says that, were it not for the tiered system, the school would become even more disproportionately Asian and “other kids would not get a chance to get in and take advantage of the education we are all paying for.”

Michael Lombardo, whose parents were Italian and Mexican, and Debra, who is of mixed European descent, say they classified their daughter as Hispanic in her application to Lowell. Several other parents that night said they had a choice of ethnic designations for their children and picked the one that would give their child an advantage.

Xochitl Benson has black, Native American, Irish, English, and Scottish blood and says, “When I am with my dad, I am considered black. When I am with my mother, I am considered white.” She says her mother has told her to classify herself as “black,” but she now leans toward an “other” designation.

“I have always wanted to check more than one box,” she says. “I want to be accepted on merit and not on the basis of the bubbles I check on a sheet.”

San Francisco’s Chinatown is larger and more authentic than most of its counterparts in other American cities. The air is filled with exotic smells and the sound of people conversing in Mandarin and Cantonese. The only fluent English speakers seem to be the tourists and those who cater to them. Although many residents appear to still be adapting to American life, they are nonetheless familiar with the academic reputation of Lowell High.

At the Capital Restaurant, an unassuming Chinese diner that still serves dishes like sea cucumber and pig hand with red-bean cake, the waitresses not only know of Lowell but have already weighed their children’s prospects of getting in.

Down on Grant Street, Lily Lam, a shop clerk, voices hope that her 10-year-old daughter will someday enroll in Lowell. The school, she says, “is almost like a private school” and seems, with its selective admissions policies, to have kept out the violent and disruptive students found in other public schools.

Keith Jew, who makes his living selling stone Buddhas, temple incense, painted fans, and other imported curios, says he enrolled his son in Lowell so he can “have a good job and achieve something.” Within the city’s Chinese community, he notes, “everyone says Lowell is the best place to go--and then, after you have graduated, you should try to get into Berkeley.”

Roland Quan, one of the Chinese activists challenging the Lowell admissions policy, grew up on the edge of this neighborhood and graduated from Lowell High in 1969.

Quan’s father was what the Chinese here call a “paper son.” After the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires destroyed most of the documents at San Francisco’s city hall, enterprising Chinese claimed bogus children and sold the newly issued paperwork to people, like Quan’s father, who wanted to immigrate to the United States. Quan’s mother came here after World War II, much of which she had spent fleeing the Japanese Army and helping her family sell off its belongings to feed itself.

Quan recalls his family living in constant fear of deportation, especially during the McCarthy era, when the federal government cracked down on the area’s illegal aliens, fearing they were the Red Army’s fifth column. Remarkably, Quan perceived little anti-Asian discrimination, even through his college years. “All through my life, I was always told: If you work hard and you produce, you will get rewarded,” he says.

Then, Quan had an experience he now describes as a “wake-up call” that “kind of shook me up and made me say, `Hey, this system is not as fair as I had been told it was.”’ On graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1973, he discovered that the whites in his accounting program were landing jobs much more easily than his Asian classmates. Although Quan finally got an offer in Los Angeles--and has since moved on to become a partner in a San Francisco accounting firm--his job-hunting experience left him angry enough to enlist three Asian classmates to file an anti-discrimination suit against one of his new field’s major employers. He also became involved in the Chinese American Democratic Club, the local advocacy organization that has emerged as the driving force in the Chinese parents’ suit against the district.

Anthony S. Chow, a 26-year-old crisis counselor who succeeded Quan as the president of the Democratic Club, took up civil-rights activism after becoming convinced that he and his brother were the victims of discrimination by various colleges and universities. Both had earned excellent grades, posted high admissions-test scores, and excelled in varsity sports, only to find themselves wrestling with feelings of anger and inadequacy after being snubbed by the Ivy League.

“The basic feeling our experiences gave us was that Chinese-Americans simply had to be better,” says Chow.

In terms of gaining admission to Lowell High School, Chow clearly is right. By 1993, Chinese-American applicants to the school were being required to score a 66 on a 69-point scale designed to weigh their grades and test scores, meaning their recent report cards had to have almost all A’s. Whites and other Asians, on the other hand, got in with a 59--which allowed for a few C’s--and blacks and Hispanics were being admitted with scores of 56, or even lower if they were deemed to have high potential.

One plaintiff in the current discrimination suit, Patrick Wong, had worked hard to raise his grades high enough to get into Lowell. He would have made the cutoff if he had not been Chinese-American. The other plaintiffs, Brian Ho, 5, and Hilary Chen, 8, were denied admission to neighborhood elementary schools where Chinese enrollments had hit their caps.

“There are children behind those numbers. There are stories of children and what they have gone through,” asserts Amy Chang, the vice president of the Asian American Legal Foundation, an organization set up to raise money for the suit.

“For a lot of the immigrant parents, getting their children into Lowell High School is a life-or-death situation. That is their dream,” says Quan, who has a son enrolled at Lowell and two younger children he hopes will get in. Chow believes Lowell’s tiered admissions requirements inspire Chinese-American parents to put even more pressure on their children, some of whom are already being pushed too hard.

When the Chinese American Democratic Club found the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. and the district unwilling to consider raising the enrollment caps, it enlisted the Chinese parents in filing the pending anti-discrimination suit, which names the district and the state as defendants. The Democratic Club characterized the district’s admissions policies as an affirmative-action program for nondisadvantaged white people. And it asked why Chinese-Americans--long the victims of discriminatory laws--should be asked to bear more of the burden for desegregation than whites and other Asians.

“We are not asking for privileges,” Chow says, “we are just asking to be treated fairly.”

But the Chinese community is itself divided over the issue. Chinese for Affirmative Action, a prominent, nonprofit Bay Area advocacy group with about 1,500 members and a long history of sticking up for Asians, opposes the suit.

Henry Der, the group’s executive director, believes the leaders of the Chinese American Democratic Club “clearly have made a tactical mistake” in supporting the suit and that the move will ultimately harm Chinese-Americans by offering ammunition to the opponents of affirmative action.

He asks, “What better than to have a minority group articulate this point of view, to advocate this abolition” of racial categories?

To some degree, the rift between the two Chinese organizations betrays class divisions within their community. Chinese for Affirmative Action typically represents immigrant and poor Chinese. Chow of the Chinese American Democratic Club says most members of his group’s governing board are too assimilated to be able to order in Chinese from a menu. Chinese for Affirmative Action belittles the Democratic Club for its “middle-class angst” and has accused the group of trying to maintain Lowell as a bastion of the district’s wealthier families.

The Organization of Chinese Americans, a separate national group with about 100,000 members, has not taken a stand in the debate. Nonetheless, many of the group’s Bay Area members have been working to support the suit, according to Marian C. Yee, the secretary of the local chapter.

“It does not seem fair that, because you have supported your child throughout his or her academic career, your child then has to have a higher score than everybody else,” says Yee.

Because her husband is part Hawaiian, Yee could have identified her 4-year-old son as a Pacific Islander, giving him a better chance one day at getting into Lowell or another school of his choice. Instead, the Yees chose to move to a suburb 30 minutes away where she won’t have to risk seeing her son kept out of a good public school for being Chinese. “I am very proud of being Chinese,” she says. “I don’t want my son to have to identify himself as something other than what he is.”

Felton L. White has a son and daughter at Lowell and was one of the relatively few black parents at last month’s open house. As he strolled through one of the school’s courtyards, he scoffed at the suggestion that its black students had enjoyed an unfair advantage in applying.

As if to underscore the historical basis for his views, White, a postal clerk, eschews the label “African-American” and asks to be referred to as a “black American of African descent.” He points out that, unlike the members of other racial and ethnic groups, his forebears did not come to this nation voluntarily and have no common homeland with a common language and culture.

Lulann S. McGriff, a local N.A.A.C.P. official, likewise disparages the notion that other minority groups have experienced enough discrimination to exempt them from desegregation’s burdens.

“Their experiences are not the same as African-Americans,”’ she says of other minority groups. “African-Americans came here as slaves; they did not. Many of them came with their wealth in their pockets. We came with nothing.”

Gary Orfield, the director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, has noted that the academic success most Chinese- and Japanese-Americans enjoy frustrates efforts to link past discrimination against them to any existing educational inequalities. If desegregation plans give such Asian groups special treatment, it opens the door to conferring similar rights on historically disadvantaged groups of white people, such as those living in poor regions of Appalachia, Orfield concludes in a report issued last fall.

In determining which children should be given extra help, civil-rights lawyers, judges, and school officials may need to move beyond strictly race-based decisions and instead begin focusing more on the problems associated with concentrated poverty, Orfield suggests.

Peter Graham Cohn, a lawyer for the N.A.A.C.P. chapter, calls the district’s desegregation formula “a very inclusive and equitable remedy.” He has asked U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick to dismiss the Chinese plaintiffs’ suit on the grounds that his organization has already represented their interests before the court.

McGriff terms the Chinese activists’ complaints “ludicrous” and their demands as “simply greed on their part.”

“They would not have been represented at all if it were not for us,” McGriff says. “We are the ones who have fought all of these years for the consent decree.”

If anyone has cause to complain about the consent decree’s implementation, McGriff says, it is the black children who have not made hoped-for progress and remain disadvantaged in terms of their overall academic achievement and their relative chances of getting into Lowell.

The Bay Area chapter of the American Jewish Committee was the first civil-rights organization to declare its support for the lawsuit. Lawrence J. Siskind, the local chapter’s vice president, says he sees the limits on Chinese enrollment at Lowell as reminiscent of the Ivy League’s efforts earlier in the century to cap their enrollments of Jews. Both groups, he says, “were being punished for their own success.”

“There has never been a quota that has helped Jews in this country,” contends Siskind, who notes that the district’s enrollment limits may also one day hurt San Francisco’s sizable population of recent Russian Jewish immigrants.

Siskind asserts that the case “marks a real watershed in civil-rights litigation” and could well make it to the U.S. Supreme Court one day.

“I think what this litigation is going to lead to is a realization that group rights don’t mean anything anymore,” Siskind says. “The only important issue now is individual rights. No group has a monopoly on racial victimization.” Noting that “we are increasingly a nation of mixed blood,” he says “it is silly to keep up these categories.”

Siskind and other conservatives have been pointing to the situation at Lowell in arguing on behalf of a California initiative, expected to appear on the ballot next fall, that would bar the state from carrying out affirmative-action or other policies based on racial distinctions.

Because the initiative would exempt court-ordered policies, it would not likely affect San Francisco’s desegregation program, which currently receives nearly $26 million in state money and $6 million in district funds each year.

Although it opposes the quotas at Lowell, the Chinese American Democratic Club remains staunchly in favor of affirmative action in the awarding of jobs and contracts.

“I can count on one hand all of the people of color who are partners in the big accounting firms in the Bay Area,” Quan says.

Quan argues that Asians have not made nearly the strides professionally that they have made in education, and points, as evidence, to the paucity of Chinese-American Lowell graduates who have gone on to become famous in their fields.

“How can you expect African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans to make it when Asian-Americans have such a large, qualified applicant pool, and we can’t do it?” Quan asks.

Jesus Ortiz emerges from his bedroom, where he has been sleeping off the night shift at a local bakery, and joins his wife, Guadalupe, at the kitchen table. She leans toward a cage and lets out Chappero, her beloved black-and-white finch, and Guero, a tangerine-colored canary. They give their companions the run of their apartment but keep the windows tightly closed so the birds won’t escape. They are similarly protective of their three sons.

Before moving here, in the shadow of San Francisco’s historic Mission Dolores, the Ortiz family spent three years in the Tenderloin District, a dilapidated section of downtown where prostitutes and drug dealers ply their trades and violence is common. Here in the Mission District, the center of the city’s Hispanic community, this pair of Mexican immigrants feels more comfortable but still fears their sons may get into trouble in the gang turf a few blocks away.

Jesus wants to move his family out of the city but doesn’t think he can afford it, even though he holds a second, part-time job as a courier. “My work is hard,” Jesus complains. Of his sons, he says, “I wish that they can be better than us. That they can be professionals.”

Guadalupe feels getting her sons the education they need to prepare them for such careers has been a struggle. She says she was stirred to become an activist in the school system when her youngest son, Eduardo, started having nightmares about his verbally abusive 5th-grade teacher, who routinely told Latino students they were destined to be nothing more than trash collectors. She continues to bristle when she hears teachers and principals describe Hispanic children as “vocational” or “manual” in their talents.

The oldest of the Ortizs’ three sons is pursuing a high-school-equivalency certificate and plans to get married in a few months. None of their boys will attend Lowell High, and, Guadalupe complains, there is no comparable school in their neighborhood. Guadalupe says many Hispanic parents do not even know Lowell High exists and are focused primarily on getting their children a merely adequate education in theirlocal schools.

“The parents don’t know they have choices,” she says. “They have got to come to know that their children need certain courses in order to graduate. They have got to be aware of what is going on.”

Angelo M. Guerrero, the director of a tutoring and counseling center sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens, complains that Hispanics have had little involvement in the discussions of Lowell or the consent decree, primarily because they have been kept in the dark as to what is happening in the school system. This fact, he says, has probably saved the district the trouble of having to deal with a lot of enraged Hispanic parents.

Guerrero traces the absence of Hispanic children from Lowell to the school system’s many failures in educating them in the lower grades.

“These students feel ignored. In many cases, they are belittled,” he says. “They are treated in a very condescending manner because many of these teachers believe that Latinos have no expectations, no goals. The teachers’ attention focuses and shifts to those students the teachers feel will excel and be college-bound. Teachers are themselves determining who is going to receive quality teaching. These teachers create a hierarchy, and, in most cases, they don’t realize it.”

Hispanic activists, who have tried unsuccessfully to intervene in the desegregation suit, and some black activists maintain that the consent decree has brought neither minority group promised improvements in their grades, test scores, and graduation rates.

Espanola Jackson, an anti-busing activist from the city’s predominantly black Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, notes that the average grade given to a black child in the San Francisco school system is a D and says the children “are not given the opportunities to utilize what they have.”

The consent decree directs additional resources toward schools in the Bayview-Hunters Point area, but the enrollment caps then force many of the intended beneficiaries, the neighborhood’s black children, to ride buses to schools elsewhere in town, Jackson complains.

Civil-rights activists also contend that, despite its enrollment limits, the decree has brought about little real integration.

Guadalupe Ortiz says she often walks into schools and encounters children from different ethnic groups sitting apart from each other. “Ireally feel that the kids don’t know each other. They are afraid of the other races,” she says.

Leland Y. Yee, a member of the San Francisco school board, blames many of the shortcomings of the consent decree on the district’s failure to more carefully evaluate reform efforts undertaken as part of it. He asserts that Superintendent Waldemar (Bill) Rojas and the current seven-member school board, which includes two blacks, two whites, two Chinese-Americans, and one Latino, have undertaken a sincere effort to rethink the district’s desegregation plan and improve the education of the district’s minorities.

Most observers believe the district could have prevented the Lowell controversy--and helped all of the city’s minority groups--if it had simply established more high-quality schools. District officials, conceding as much, have undertaken efforts to set up two academically rigorous high schools in the Bayview-Hunters Point area and a science-focused high school in Chinatown.

“The solution is putting the same quality teachers and books in all of the schools in San Francisco, in every neighborhood,” Jackson says. “Why do some areas have better schools than others when these are all of our children, all of our futures?”

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 1995 edition of Education Week as Cursed by Success


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