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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

How to help students succeed: It's not about exam schools

In A Tale of Two High Schools, Renu Mukherjee, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, looks at San Francisco's Lowell High School, which dropped merit-based admissions to increase racial and ethnic diversity, and the city's Mission High School, which created a program to support disadvantaged students with college ambitions.

San Francisco's Mission Graduates starts building a college-going culture in elementary school.

Last year's ninth graders, the first class eliminated after the end of merit admissions, earned many more D and F grades than previous classes, according to district data obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle. "Of the 620 students in Lowell’s freshman class, 24.4 percent received at least one D or F grade during the fall semester, compared with 7.9 percent of first-year students in fall 2020 and 7.7 percent in fall 2019," writes Mukherjee.

“If the lottery system continues, Lowell classes will definitely get easier because students won’t be able to handle how it is now,” predicted Lana Wallace, a junior.

Of course, these students were affected by school closures. However, San Francisco's other high schools didn't see a surge in D and F grades.

San Franciscans recalled three school board members, in part because of opposition to the Lowell decision, and the new board voted to return to merit admissions based on grades and test scores.

That reversal "should serve as a warning for other school boards around the country considering similar moves, such as Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia and Boston Public Schools in Massachusetts," writes Mukherjee. "If school boards want to expand opportunity for disadvantaged students, they should leave exam schools alone and focus instead on increasing tutoring services, one-on-one mentoring, and individualized college counseling and preparatory programs in their district’s high schools."

That's the approach at San Francisco’s Mission High School, which is working with the non-profit Mission Graduates to prepare students for college success, she writes. Nearly all Mission Graduates students come from low-income families and will be the first in their families to go to college. Yet, 90 percent who applied to the University of California for the 2021–2022 school year, were accepted, the highest proportion in the district, including Lowell, and all California State University applicants were accepted.

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