Photo of three school lockers.

By Carly Stern

For Nathan Heller, Lowell High School had always represented the road not taken. Heller had applied to Lowell when he was a teenager growing up in San Francisco, but ended up attending a nearby private school that offered him financial aid. More than two decades later, Heller found himself back on campus — this time, to cover it.

Nestled in a foggy neighborhood of the city, Lowell is the oldest U.S. public high school west of the Mississippi. Long known as a stand-out magnet school, in recent years it has become the subject of national debate about school admissions policies.

Heller, a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2013, documented the school’s hotly contested transition for the 2021-2022 school year from a selective admissions process to a lottery intended to promote equity. “What Happens When an Elite Public School Becomes Open to All?” was published in the magazine on March 2022.

Heller has spent his adult life back and forth between San Francisco and New York. He often finds himself pulled back to the Bay Area to report on its complexities. “It’s the tip of the arrow of whatever is going on in the rest of the country,” he said. “Many of the…problems contradictions and tensions that eventually crop up in metropolitan areas in other parts of the country appear first in kind of a strong, very vivid form in SF. A lot of what is buried elsewhere is more on the surface.”

Storyboard spoke with Heller about how he conveyed the national resonance of this local story, the core questions that propelled his reporting and the issues he sought to unravel. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of the story.

How this story assignment come about?
When the admissions changes happened, there was a lot of controversy. Pretty swiftly after that, I read about it in the papers. There are reporters who like good-versus-evil stories. I tend to be drawn to more toward the good-versus-good” stories, because I tend to feel that’s where the work of actually reporting — and working through a problem over the course of a long piece — is the most useful. I tend to be interested in problems that are not easily solved, where the people on both ends of the problem are acting in a principled, defensible ways. Those are the problems that end up, in many ways, being the really big problems in a society.

In order for a piece to be worthwhile, it should bring you somewhere in your own mind. With the case of the Lowell admissions changes, you had this very animated dispute between two groups where each believed that they were acting in the interest of egalitarianism. And yet, it was a mess. Everybody was angry at everybody else.

What did you see as the key threads, or central focus, driving the piece?
One of the things that I’ve become very interested in as a reporter is the subject of inequality and egalitarianism. This is a question which is under many other questions about the problems that arise in our society. Equality is one of those things which we all agree, in the abstract, is a wonderful thing. But what does it actually mean in the context of the society we live in? And if you have inequalities, how do you fix them? What are the adjustments? All of this is  crucial, but also very, very complicated. We don’t have a consensus, in most contexts, about what we’re actually talking about when we are talking about equality. I thought that this was a story about inequality, and the complexities of defining it, and the work of bringing it into being.

What were the core questions that you were trying to answer?
Whenever you write about schools and educational environments, one of the interesting aspects is the question of power. Who has it and how is it being used? That was on my mind in a big way, as was the question of equality and what the dynamics of equality are in this setting. One of the reasons I wanted to spend a good amount of time on the campus and speak with full spectrum of the community was to get a sense of how the ecosystem of the school worked.

I often view education as an ecosystem, one that is dynamic. Yet when we design an educational system, it’s at the level of policy. It’s on paper, in the abstract, and often in the ideal. Inevitably there is a translation that takes place from that ideal to how it works in practice. One of the questions on my mind was: What is the translation process here? What is coming through from the level of the abstract ideals and what is being lost in translation?

I’m always interested in stories that don’t have clear answers. Can you talk about your own sense of exploration and thought process as you reported? Did you emerge with a sense of how the lottery approach was working and whether inequalities can be leveled?
If I were able to solve that in one article, I should be the Secretary of Education. The goal in these pieces is usually to spread everything out on the table and to give readers ways of thinking about the problem that they did not have before. What you often find, in the course of reporting, is that just about everybody involved does not have access to a panorama of information. People are in their own circles. The parents are not seeing what the teachers are seeing, and vice versa. There is virtue in laying it all out in one picture, tracing out a few patterns and offering a few frames in which to consider the problem.

The big revelation in this reporting for me was this idea that what was really at stake and being fought over wasn’t access for students who identified as underprivileged — but rather, access for the increasingly precarious middle class. That was where all the tension was weatherizing, which I hadn’t realized.


The Annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Heller’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button in the top right menu bar or at the top of your mobile screen.

Photo of an empty classroom

What Happens When an Élite Public School Becomes Open to All?

After the legendarily competitive Lowell High School dropped selective admissions, new challenges—and new opportunities—arose.

By Nathan Heller

March 7, 2022

Rebecca Johnson, a teacher for more than twenty years, approached the first day of class at Lowell High School last fall with unusual anxiety. “I am used to having my plans and procedures mostly ready to go, and I am just excited to meet a new crop of kids,” she explained before the term began. “While I am still experiencing much of that excitement, I am also feeling some trepidation, and I am not sure exactly why.” On the first morning of school, she dressed the way she always does: an untucked button-down shirt, this one with flowers; gray slacks; and extraordinarily sensible black shoes. On arriving, she prepared herself, as usual, a mug of milky tea. Why did you choose to open the story here? What about this moment felt fitting? The first day of school seemed the natural beginning. It was the first time in memory that Lowell brought in a class selected through a randomized system. Everyone was curious what was going to happen when those students went into the educational stream with the rest of the school. It was also the return to campus after remote learning due to Covid, which was a singular experience. Everything was crashing together in the hallways after 18 months of strained quiet and nobody, not even seasoned teachers like Johnson, knew what was next. That’s when you want to tune in.  Lowell is in western San Francisco, near the ocean, and a thick, low fog was sweeping through the eucalyptus and cypress trees as students arrived for the first time since the start of the pandemic, eighteen months earlier. Shortly after 8 a.m., Johnson began walking the lower hallways, then the upper, while a tide of students lapped onto the campus as if from twenty-seven hundred different continents, all keen to see their futures made.

Upstairs, Johnson stood against the wall to guide the rush. She is both commanding and approachable, with snowy hair just past her shoulders and a big camp-counsellor voice, and people tend to come to her with their confusions. The school’s campus is a sprawl of irregular buildings, semi-connected; sophomores had attended only remotely, so half the student body was a little lost. “I don’t know where 270 is!” a boy cried, clawing at his hair and sprinting toward oblivion. “Can you feel the terror?” Johnson said.

Lowell, founded in 1856, is the oldest public high school in the West and a long-admired jewel of public education. A big seal on the building’s façade proclaims its status as a National Blue Ribbon School. In the front entrance, glass-framed boards display smiling head shots of illustrious alumni: Stephen Breyer, Alexander Calder, Jennifer Egan, Dian Fossey, Rube Goldberg, William Hewlett—the lists go on in every field. For decades, Lowell has been one of two public high schools in San Francisco to use selective admissions, with a grade- and test-score cutoff for most applicants. “They call us nerds, and I can’t refute that,” Catherine Hung, a junior, told me. “Lowell students will skip class to study for their next class.” You must have met quite a few students during your reporting. How did you parse through who might be a strong source? I write a certain number of pieces that I think of as iron-filings pieces. You know why the big question interests you, but you basically have no idea what you’ll find. You talk at length to 50, 60, maybe 100 people, hang around some places as a fly on the wall and read stuff. Then you spread it all out and look for the patterns. Talking with that many people is partly about working up narrative authority: only a fraction of the people you heard from will end up in the piece, but ideally, by the time they do, you’re confident that you’re describing the right tip of the right iceberg.) At that point, when you know what’s going on, what the story is, the source question is largely a structure question. Often you end up with several people making versions of the same point. Part of the structuring work is figuring out who actually gets to articulate Point X and when. You don’t want this huge cast of talking heads fluttering everyplace all the time, people constantly popping up in the reader’s ear, saying something interesting and then vanishing for 4,000 words before showing up in another time and place with another one-liner. That can feel like being attacked by crows. You also don’t want to seem to be working too hard to make connections. Part of the New Yorker style is to tell the story like a camera on a track: You move into the scene; you move out of the scene; there’s an illusion of narrative passivity. The trick is to do it so, along the way, you’re also gently tracing out a line of argument, building character arcs, meting out information in a cumulative fashion, offering nuggets of entertainment and so forth. Making all that work as a whole is the jigsaw-puzzle work of structure. Editors are usually helpful in thinking it through. The editor on this piece was a brilliant fiction writer named Clare Sestanovich, who subsequently left the magazine to focus on her own work, although she now does fiction editing at a terrific young mag called The Drift.

As the foot traffic intensified, Johnson pushed through a narrowing in the hallway—the Gates of Hell, she calls it, owing to the hourly bottlenecks it creates—and headed to Room 255, where desks were arranged in a double horseshoe. At 9 a.m., seniors in A.P. Economics started streaming in. “Good morning! Wow, that was weird,” Johnson said. “And by ‘that’ I mean the last eighteen months.” You talk with quite a few key characters throughout the piece, including students, but you start and end the piece with a teacher, Rebecca Johnson. What attracted you to her as a character? What about her story made you feel like she had the elements to carry a piece this complex? She was a wonderful and very open, patient, candid participant. She was also very valuable as a character because she was, I thought, a wonderful teacher. A lot of her students also thought so, though she was not an easy teacher. She was a hard teacher, very devoted, and a true believer in public education. For this story in particular, she had this very interesting history where she had come to Lowell reluctantly. Although it was a selective school, she had arrived as a believer in a funicular model of education where you take people of all levels and work to bring them all up together to a single higher level. That made her an interesting character who kind of lived on both sides of the fence.

In 2020, when the pandemic made universal standardized testing impossible, Lowell temporarily suspended its admissions standards in favor of a randomized, lottery-like system. This seemed a relatively minor change amid the major weirdness of conducting school online. On February 9, 2021, however, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to make the lottery admissions system permanent, and responses suggested someone with a pinkie in a pencil sharpener. Parents cried out. Alumni threatened and launched lawsuits, and a few current students protested. Lowell, once a meritocratic beacon, had become something else: a bellwether for the uncertain future of selective public education. This feels like a really important line that sets up the central tension of the piece. Why did you decide to place it so early in the story? It’s the big frame. I’m not a huge fan of the journalism of front-loading context, which is the sort of gratuitous move that can make your eyes roll up in your head as a reader. William Shawn is said to have rejected pitches by saying, “What you want to write is an article, and The New Yorker doesn’t publish articles.” We all know what he meant, right? I mean, who wants another article? But an editor once told me that, in these 8,000-word pieces, it’s good if the reader knows by 1,000 words in most of what’s at issue. That struck me as sane, so I try to do it.

“I always knew Lowell had a target on its back because of the demographics of its student body,” Terence Abad, a 1976 Lowell graduate who is the director of the Alumni Association and the speech-and-debate coach, told me. What he meant was that, compared with the district of San Francisco as a whole, Lowell’s student body has long had disproportionately high white and Asian American representation, and low representation for Latinx, Black, and other groups. In the school board’s view, some hidden bias was being amplified by its supposedly meritocratic admissions. “The school culture, alumni base, and support is strong enough to continue to carry its legacy,” Faauuga Moliga, formerly the board’s vice-president, told me.

Defenders of selective admissions conceded that there were inequities in the pipeline, but argued that letting people in randomly means admitting students who might not be able to handle the work, diluting the culture of achievement that lifts up underserved but brilliant students. Where’s the equity in that?

Last November, a lawsuit filed by the Lowell Alumni Association and others managed to invalidate the school board’s vote, on a procedural matter. Yet the judge stressed that the board was free to restore its change, and in December the superintendent of schools put through a resolution that the lottery would continue at least until next year. At a moment when many magnet schools are eying similar changes—New York City debated getting rid of the admissions test for its own selective schools three years ago; the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Virginia, altered its admissions criteria to accept a greater range of students; Boston Latin will make use of Zip Code allocations and G.P.A. scores—the future of admissions at Lowell is charged with uncertainty. Meanwhile, the first class of lottery freshmen arrived on campus like the setup for an odd experiment: What happens when you take one of the nation’s proudest, most selective schools, and suddenly let anybody in? Was this question always at the core of the assignment? Or did it unfold for you as you started reporting? It was always there. It’s what induced me to do the piece. Questions of meritocracy and access in education are always a quagmire, and one of the reasons is that you get a lot of abstract or idealized notions in the mix: Here’s how it’s meant to work, how it’s supposed to be working, whatever. The big appeal of this project was that it was a chance to stand literally in the school hallways and sit in the classrooms and see how it actually worked. It offered, as I say here, a very immediate experiment.  

That morning, the seniors in Johnson’s A.P. Economics studied her syllabus the way a roomful of orthopedists might examine X-rays. She returned to the classroom to teach World History to freshmen, who entered slowly, looking tentative and scared. Johnson took out her seating chart and went around the room, calling out names. “You’re going to get out a piece of paper and something to write with,” she said. “You’re going to take some notes.”

A boy named Brandon, with a mop of black curls, looked around desperately for a sheet of paper. A boy named Arin, lean-built, bent over his page.

“This class is going to be hard,” Johnson went on. “You didn’t luck out and get the easy teacher. It’s going to probably take more time, especially at the beginning, than you like. The readings are not easy.

“But you are going to get through this hard class with all these difficult readings,” she said. “I’m going to give you the tools you need to do well in my class and at this school.”

As the period ended, she watched Lowell’s first lottery class dispersing back into the maelstrom of the hall.

“We’re going to get through this together,” she called after them. “It’s going to be O.K.”

Before the eighteen-twenties, white American boys and girls (but mostly boys) were educated through a mixture of homeschooling, tuition schooling, church schooling, and tutors. Life was largely agricultural; book learning hardly mattered. That changed during the early nineteenth century, when booming industrialism called for new specialists, and inequalities intensified across explosive growth. In 1848, Horace Mann, an early architect of the public-education system, wrote, “If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called; the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependents and subjects.” Level the playing field of education, he thought, and a more equal society could emerge. How do you think about where to zoom out and weave in historical context without losing the reader’s attention? The goal of these pieces is not to tell readers what to think so much as to sketch out some fresh paths along which to think more fruitfully. I try to be selective —  which historical frame is going to be most illuminating? — and to lay that frame into the narrative leanly. We’re not an academic journal or Wikipedia; we’re just giving readers the orientation they need for this one piece. Mannism and the construction of the American public-school system seemed a useful frame in part because it was contemporaneous with Lowell’s founding: it’s the thinking that would have been in the air at the time and it put forward a certain idea of access. The change in ideas of access over time is one of the arcs in the piece, so I needed to plant that first stake pretty early.   

Lowell was established in Mann’s era and remains a lodestar for his cause. “I treated my Lowell admission like, Did I get into Harvard?” Juwairya Shaikh, who graduated last year, told me. Most students begin taking college-credit classes as sophomores, and the catalogue runs deep. A physics whiz can knock off calculus and A.P. Physics 2 as a junior, while working for the school newspaper (a habitual winner of national awards), joining the debate club (ditto), or marching in the drum corps (same). An ebullient senior named Derek Duncan told me that his “proudest moment” was leading the Lowell Robotics Team to victory in the international first Robotics Competition. “Whenever I’m feeling down, I listen to a recording of the announcer saying, ‘These are your achievements,’” he told me.

Duncan, who, when I met him, was given to Keatsian turns about the beauty of the fog on the school fields, had lived in a long series of foster homes as a child. He came to Lowell from a magnet elementary school, and his dream is to enroll at Boston University. In that sense, he epitomizes the opportunity-equalizing work that Mann imagined, and he’s not alone. Sairy Velasquez, a freshman in Johnson’s World History class, is the youngest of five children and lives with her mother. (Her father is in El Salvador.) She was student-body president at her public middle school and, far from feeling helped by Lowell’s lottery, had worried that it might keep her from a spot that was otherwise assured. “I was always going to get in, because my grades were good,” she told me. From Lowell, she plans to go to college, while saving up to spend time in France. What ethical considerations and extra steps did you have to navigate when interviewing teenagers under age 18? It was very important to me that we did the reporting according to best practices in this respect. I had various conversations with the magazine’s team and also with members of the Lowell faculty before starting. Protocols were set up. And I went through a process of being registered with the school district as an official campus visitor who was there to report. We worked to be transparent and responsible throughout. Happily, everyone was on the same page in this respect.

According to this idea of meritocracy, an important role of education is to identify people with talent and motivation and cultivate their potential. It’s good for society—you won’t have to worry about the universe in which Mozart never got piano lessons—and it’s good for students, providing a lift no matter where they’re coming from. The lift is social and financial, but acculturative, too. “I wouldn’t be honest if I said students here weren’t motivated by their grades and the pedigree of the school, but they’re also excited about learning,” Cy Prothro, an A.P. Physics teacher who surfs before work, wears Hawaiian shirts, and explains acceleration curves with a pointer made to look like a prehistoric spear, told me. Previously, he’d taught at inner-city schools in Boston and Los Angeles, where classroom management was a struggle. At Lowell, which has a ninety-nine-per-cent graduation rate and mean SAT scores over thirteen hundred, his own talents for teaching could flourish. “I’m sure that there were students in my classes in L.A. who could have gotten the material as quickly, but there was so much else happening that they didn’t have my undivided attention,” he said, glancing toward project posters from a Lowell program that places students in biomedical labs at U.C.S.F.—special access granted on the premise that Lowell kids are pre-selected for smarts and bushy-tailedness.

The problem is that special access is the opposite of what public school is supposed to be about. This puzzle has been worked at like a Rubik’s Cube for years. What a lovely line! Rubik’s cubes have the added benefit of being kind of a high-school thing — or they were when I was in high school. Now there’s probably an app.  In 1961, during the so-called Battle of Lowell, the superintendent sought to make Lowell—then the only high school in the United States to have produced two Nobel laureates—mostly a neighborhood school, arguing that its citywide application process was bad for equality because it made other schools de-facto second rate. Opponents argued that assigning schools by neighborhood was unfair—also bad for equality—since different neighborhoods were privileged in different ways. In 2014, the school district eliminated honors tracking, teacher discretion about who can enroll in advanced courses, and middle-school Algebra 1 offerings; people were concerned that these things, too, worked against equality. Not everyone agreed. You do a nice job here setting up how people with the same goals can approach a problem from very different perspectives, and still firmly believe that their ethos is the “correct” one. Yes. Which of these groups is thinking badly? Both arguments make sense on their terms and both start from the same premises. In a “values” sense, these people are on the same team. Yet they’re at loggerheads. Situations like this arise more often than we like to admit. And in general, I think, that kind of friction is under-treated by journalists. I always see gnarly good-versus-good problems as beacons for magazines like The New Yorker: they’re situations to which reporting and careful thinking can bring clarity.  

“Forcing students to double up on math classes”—to catch up to peers who came from algebra-teaching private middle schools—“is, in my view, child abuse!” Mark Wenning, a biology teacher at Lowell, told me one day. Wenning, a high-strung man with clipped silvery hair and a stark blue-eyed gaze, has taught at Lowell for more than twenty-five years; he is known for running his classes by Socratic interrogation, cold-calling on startled freshmen like a professor at Harvard Law. He has protested efforts to “dumb down” the district’s curriculum—a trick, he thinks, to conceal the distance between the performance floor and ceiling by forcing the ceiling down. “They’re giving up on fixing the achievement gap for students who need help, and as a result they’re making it hard for all the other students to succeed in life and in college,” he told me.

Yet Wenning doesn’t deny that help is needed. He started to tell me about some anti-racist workshops that Lowell teachers attended, and abruptly began to weep. “It was amazing and inspiring to see so many of my colleagues who I didn’t know well speak so passionately about these issues—I couldn’t believe it!” he said. The sentiment was unsurprising, as was the agitation. The weeping here struck me as a bit precious and self-righteous. What was your impression of this reaction? It caught me off-guard in the moment, that’s for sure. But, when you’re working, there’s also always the cool, assessing homunculus inside your mind who’s looking for vivid moments to bring a piece to life, and he perked up at that point. In caricature, there are two kinds of reporters, the dominant kind, who bark into the phone and boss people around to get what they need to tell the story, and the recessive kind, who, in a sort of psychoanalytic way, try to be as minimal an entity as possible, to create a kind of vacuum space that people feel comfortable growing into in their distinctive ways. I identify with the latter tradition. Obviously, if people are wasting your time with nonsense or spin, you push back, but in general I try to get out of the way as much as possible. (There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that when A.J. Liebling was reporting in Europe during the Second World War, he’d schedule an interview, show up, sit down, and just start nodding. His interviewees would feel so awkward about the silence that they’d begin talking to fill it. I’ve never had the chutzpah to try that, but hats off to him.) The recessive mode requires being alert, and often patient. It has happened more times than I can count that someone will seem to be giving a totally boring interview and then, 45 minutes in, when they get comfortable, tell you something extraordinary that ends up central to the piece.  When Americans talk about “the achievement gap,” they’re speaking euphemistically of the same worries broached in 1961, when the board proposed different schools for different neighborhoods. They are talking about race.

“As we walk, notice the kids, and who’s sitting together,” Adee Horn, who leads Lowell’s Peer Resources program, told me as we crossed between buildings at lunch. Did you have to do much persuading to gain access for this story, or were folks eager for you to hold a microscope to their community? What was that process like for you? People have varying levels of comfort at the get-go, which is as it should be. Everyone is different. Every situation is different. There was a period when I was writing a lot of cover profiles of movie actors for Vogue, and that’s a very particular arrangement: in Hollywood, all the persuading, if any is required, happens with this apparatus of professionals around the person, and by the time someone like me shows up for the interview, he’s dealing with a subject who is probably, in a sense, performing, trying to come across as winsome and interesting on the page. Somewhere like Lowell, you’re dealing with people who may never have crossed paths with the journalistic enterprise before, and their responses — as well as the things you should be attentive to as a reporter — will be different. At a certain point, one hopes one’s record of care and fair-mindedness speaks largely for itself. But some people will still want to have conversations about what the process entails or about their anxieties, and I’m happy to have those.  Asian American kids were gathered mostly with other Asian American kids; white students with other white students. “Lowell is a very diverse school, but there’s a lot of segregation within that diversity.” When Horn arrived at Lowell, in 2007, to head Peer Resources, which trains students in tutoring and counselling one another, she found what seemed to her a pattern.

“A lot of the issues that students were getting in arguments about, or their reasons for needing mentoring or tutoring, were connected to societal oppressions, be it racism or heterosexism or sexism,” she said. Peer Resources became the front guard of Lowell’s equity project. In 2019, after it grew clear that families from certain lower-income neighborhoods had trouble commuting to school, Peer Resources kids got the city’s transportation agency to consider improvements to a crucial bus line. Horn herself helped organize workshops on bias and micro-aggressions. Last winter, one of these initiatives unexpectedly exploded. After screening a video about the problems with the slogan “All Lives Matter,” organizers gathered responses to it on an online platform, which was soon vandalized with slurs—the N-word, the K-word—and pornography.

Lowell at that point was less than two per cent Black and twelve per cent Latinx, compared with eight and thirty-two per cent, respectively, in the district. “In most of my classes I’m the only Black student,” Gabrielle Grice, a junior and the current president of the school’s Black Student Union, told me. This made the vandalism seem very pointed.

The principal sent a letter to the school community denouncing the act, but some students, finding the letter insufficient, e-mailed a letter of their own to the mayor and others, condemning the “rampant, unchecked racism at Lowell.” Several members of the school board shared the concern. “Why are these issues occurring at the school?” Moliga, the former vice-president, wondered. “Is it because of the diversity makeup? Does the admissions policy play into that?” Here, you delve into the racial demographics of the school and broader city. What guided your structure and influenced when you decided to incorporate various threads throughout the piece? A longtime editor of mine liked to talk about “titrating” information. You’re not dumping it on the readers all at once. You’re giving a kind of drip-drip in a controlled way, at the right moment and in the right proportion to create a series of reactions in their minds. That goes for conceptual frames, too. If a piece is well done, stuff should only show up when readers are in a position to process it based on what they’ve already learned and what they’ve begun to think through with you. That’s perhaps especially true in these thinky, iron-filings pieces I sometimes do. The hard part is making it seem reasonably effortless, organic to everything else going on.  

Before the lottery, Asian Americans made up half of Lowell’s freshman class. The western side of San Francisco has long been a transpacific node, a place where it is easy to find a proper phở gân bò or the latest Taiwanese snacks, and one of Lowell’s functions has been to serve as a diasporic merging lane. Asian immigration has been growing in the U.S. for half a century, and, since 2009, Asians have been the largest group of new arrivals yearly, so some see it as natural that the demographic should be well represented at the access-and-assimilation gates. At Lowell, though, Asian American preëminence has been perennially insecure. In 1983, selective enrollment of any “racial /ethnic” group was capped at forty per cent, ultimately raising the admissions bar only for Chinese Americans; in 1999, the practice was invalidated in a settlement agreement. Some see the lottery as the latest effort to suppress Asian American enrollment, which fell eight per cent in this year’s freshman class, and at a moment of particular concern. Two Fridays ago, the judge in a federal case struck down the recent admissions changes at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School, where the representation of Asian American students this school year fell by nineteen percentage points, citing an uneven playing field that disadvantaged them.

In San Francisco, mistrust only intensified when, after the board’s five-to-two vote to make Lowell’s lottery permanent, public attention landed on a series of five-year-old tweets by its vice-president, Alison Collins, saying that Asian Americans “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’ ” Collins was stripped of her committee assignments and Moliga became vice-president for a while. This is a very San Francisco story. How did you and your editors think about making it relevant beyond that one local? What made it into a story that resonated with other U.S. schools, public and private, and schools outside of the U.S.? This was a dispute existing in a particularly strong form at Lowell because it was the only school in the country that had gone overnight from selection to a fully lotterized system, although other schools had taken steps in that direction. This is a general idea that was being simultaneously explored across the country, with the same tensions and stakes at play. We thought that, in that respect, it was microcosmic in a generative way.

“I’m for affirmative action,” Oliver Chin, an author of popular children’s books, told me one afternoon. Chin, who is Chinese American, has two boys: his older son graduated from Lowell; his younger son ended up as a freshman elsewhere. Chin sees the need for greater diversity, but thinks that “the lottery is a case of the cure being worse than the disease.”

Lowell is one of the more middle class of the large San Francisco public high schools: thirty-three per cent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, compared with sixty per cent at Balboa High School and sixty-two per cent at Galileo. It also has, by some measures, big coffers. Public schools are awarded six hundred dollars for each A.P. test taken, and Lowell offers thirty-one A.P. courses. The cash is supposed to pay for extra prep time for A.P. teachers, but what’s left over supports other staffing: Peer Resources, tutoring, arts faculty, and a rich catalogue of language instruction. This produces an upward spiral. Kids who applied because Lowell had a lot to offer take the A.P. courses, and the tests bring funding to make Lowell a school with a lot to offer. To the extent that the spiral makes Lowell competitive with private prep schools, it provides appealing access both for underprivileged families and for the middle class.

“People need something to shoot for,” Chin told me, and produced a matrix of notes on which he’d circled the term “white flight.” Enrollment in the school district dropped by thirty-five hundred kids during the pandemic, with the largest losses among white and Filipino students. Many see the shift as evidence of middle-class fickleness: parents fed up with online learning or poor access going elsewhere. And, because the school district is subsidized by enrollment numbers, the drop helped create a hundred-and-twenty-five-million-dollar budget deficit. (According to the U.S. Census, San Francisco has the fourth-highest per-student funding among large school systems, but that figure plummets when you factor out funds unavailable for operational use.) In order to keep the students and the money coming, Chin thought, the district needed a great school like Lowell. And keeping Lowell selective, surely, was the way to keep it great. How did you get access to these financials? Are they public record? This was all public, if I recall. And maybe this is the moment to put in a cheer for The New Yorker fact-checking department. One of the great misapprehensions of our age is that numbers speak for themselves. Any journalist who has really pressed on a set of figures, though, knows that numbers are squishy. People slice, dice, constrain and frame them in all sorts of ways to promote their interests; two ostensibly credible institutions can, with the full force of their authority, put forward contradictory sets of figures. One of the many things that the magazine’s extraordinary checkers can do is to dig deeply into data to make sure we understand what we’re getting. We try to give readers the best that can be got.  

“Remember, what can we say about the level of easiness on this reading?” Johnson asked one Friday early in the semester. She doesn’t love the required world-history textbook, and adds her own reading—today, an article by the scholar Lynda Shaffer that had appeared in the Journal of World History, in 1994. A tall blond boy raised his hand.

“Uh—it’s graduate level?” he said.

“Yeah,” Johnson said. “And not graduate-from-eighth-grade level. It’s hard. So—should you feel all stupid and loser-y if you don’t understand everything?”

No,” the class replied in unison.

“Can you feel a little confused and frustrated?” Johnson went on. “Yeah. But then you just move on. What is your goal in reading this?”

“Just extract information,” Sairy Velasquez proposed.

“That’s it,” Johnson said. “How do you know what information to extract? I’m going to tell you what we’re looking for.”

Johnson divided the students into groups to begin a seven-page section of the article, passing around a worksheet with fact-oriented questions. She walked from group to group, reviewing the students’ work—an approach modelled on the now popular “flipped classroom” method, which holds that class time is for teachers to tutor students as they actively engage with material, not give lectures on what they could study at home.

“What does ‘contemporary’ mean again?” a girl asked as Johnson came around.

A boy inquired, “Is this going to be graded?”

Johnson noticed that Brandon, the curly-haired boy, and Arin had become friends. In some ways, they were different: Brandon’s parents had come from Mexico, and worked at a restaurant in the Mission. Arin lived in the Inner Richmond, and his parents worked in tech. He had applied to Lowell along with a couple of parochial schools.

The boys had got to know each other the first week, when Johnson gave her class a “name quiz,” to make sure they knew their peers. The formality of the exercise had puzzled Brandon, who simply leaned over and asked Arin, “Hey, bro, what’s your name again?,” and wrote it down. Arin thought that was hilarious. They discovered that they shared a lunch period, and began eating together. Brandon was shy with grownups but had a warm, joshing swagger with his peers, reliably bugging the girls around him for paper and pens (his binder was kept à la bohème), and bantering along the way. “I just talk to people,” he told me. After school, he liked to go with a group past the Waymo car lot to the Stonestown mall, prancing forth in the checkered flannel pajama pants that are the cool look now. Arin was more mannerly with grownups—on our first meeting, he shook my hand three separate times—and kept a tight schedule to balance academics with basketball. (“I talked with several high-school students before coming, and they’re all, like, ‘Time management, time management, time management!’ ” he told me; his father helped him budget out his homework schedule in advance.) But the boys already had the private language of close buddies, murmuring half phrases to each other and cracking up. “He helps me,” Arin said. “And I help him.”

Johnson looked at Brandon’s blank worksheet. “You got distracted?” she suggested. Brandon nodded and, under her gaze, slowly began to work. She moved on to study his neighbor’s progress. “You’ve got a lot of words, my friend,” she said. Why did you choose to include so much classroom dialogue? This is the thing itself! We’ve had all these grownups describing and tearing one another to pieces about what supposedly will or won’t go on in the classroom. Here, at last, we are in the classroom! I’m one of these people who thinks that the activity of teaching and learning is a miraculous and somewhat occult practice when it really works, so I’m fascinated every time I get a peek inside the magician’s box. I thought other readers might feel the same way.   

It wasn’t praise. Johnson doesn’t let freshmen take notes in full sentences, honing a distillation skill that, she thinks, trains them to sort the important from the dross. Gradually, the bullets become paragraph responses. “I have kids writing college-level work by the end of their freshman year—I’ll stand by that,” she told me. “They’re often not my strongest kids to begin with, but we just keep working it.”

Before coming to Lowell, fourteen years ago, Johnson had taught social studies, science, and math at Wallenberg, a much smaller public high school across town. She loved it—she was also a badminton coach—and had a distaste for Lowell. “I couldn’t say the name Lowell without, you know, ‘I hate’ in front of it,” she recalled. Wallenberg kids didn’t test as impressively as Lowell kids, but the school was small enough that teachers could build a rapport with students, and she saw them thrive. At a certain point, Johnson became restless at Wallenberg—there was a new administration she didn’t like—and eventually applied for an opening at Lowell. But she remained deeply skeptical of the place for months.

“I just felt that everybody was breaking their arms off trying to pat themselves on the back,” Johnson said. She’d been accustomed to taking kids with middling test scores and graduating them as capable students. At Lowell, students entered in the ninety-seventh percentile and left in the ninety-seventh percentile. The heavy lifting seemed to be done not in the classroom but in admissions.

Like Prothro, though, she found it hard not to enjoy teaching kids who started class with pencils poised and could be arrantly themselves. Some made a point of boning up on current events, like little senators. The My Little Pony Club was among the most vibrant there. In time, Johnson became another devoted Lowell teacher. Yet her belief in education as a funicular, boarding everyone and lifting them together, remained.

After class that Friday, Johnson told me that more kids than usual were struggling: “There are a couple of students I really worry about—because of the comprehension, but also because they give up.” On Wednesday, she convened the seven other World History teachers to compare notes. They gathered in Room 255; outside, the drum corps was practicing, and the eerie music-box tinkle of a glockenspiel came through the windows as they spoke.

“I thought this would be a good meeting to talk about the number of reluctant learners,” Johnson said. She was requiring each freshman to schedule a “binder check,” to make one-on-one contact. The meetings were illuminating. One freshman who she’d thought was slacking off turned out to have a third-grade reading level: he wasn’t truculent, just petrified. Slipping so far through the cracks was a new problem at Lowell, but she’d alerted the boy’s homeroom teacher and got him connected to tutoring.

“I feel as if this year we’re getting kids at a very early curve,” one of her colleagues said.

“I had one kid put a ‘Kick Me’ sign on someone,” Johnson said. “It’s, like, come on, guys, this is high school!”

They wondered whether this was an effect of the pandemic’s disruption, and agreed on the importance of “scaffolding”—building skills alongside the material. Later, when I spoke with freshmen, I found that they’d noticed the support. “World History is definitely a hard class, but Ms. Johnson is pushing for us to get there,” a student named Calliope told me. Still, the funicular theory of education makes some people uncomfortable; it suggests that what’s called “excellence” is just a term for getting the right breaks.

Early one rainy morning, before school began, I met an academic named Debbie Lee a short walk from campus. Lee graduated from Lowell in 1988. Her parents were immigrants from mainland China who spoke little English; her mom was a seamstress, and her dad was a cook. “There was definitely pressure from my parents to, you know, become a lawyer or a doctor, go to Berkeley or Stanford,” she told me. “Those were the things they heard from their friends.”

At Lowell, Lee enrolled in honors classes. “Then I hit a wall, and I didn’t know where to find help,” she said. When she struggled in math, she felt she had less recourse on account of being Chinese American. A substitute teacher told her, “You’ve completely ruined my stereotype of what an Asian female should be.” Lee never took the SAT, because nobody at Lowell told her that she should, or how to sign up.

Instead, she went to community college, transferring to Berkeley and then to San Francisco State University, where she earned two degrees. Last year, in an op-ed that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, she wrote that Lowell’s vaunted achievement culture was “toxic,” a course of uneven hurdles. Lee made her career as a teacher of mathematics at the Foothill community college, where she chaired two departments and became a dean. To the extent that Lowell steered her away from math and academia, the fields in which she thrives, it had failed to give her helpful access. This counterpoint of failing access is really interesting, as it seems to counter all that Lowell tries or claims to do. What made you want to include Lee’s perspective? Lee’s experience adds nuance in a particular way. When schools talk about diversity, they tend to mean ethnic diversity. There are obvious reasons why that’s a useful measure, but it’s not a comprehensive one. Ethnic groups aren’t monoliths; there’s also diversity within them. Lee suggests how access within ostensible groups can get unbalanced by socioeconomic position. In the context of the piece, it gives us a frame of understanding as we explore the idea of success being, as I put it, partly dependent on “getting the right breaks.” That’s a thread through this chapter of the piece, which starts with Johnson’s “funicular” theory of access and goes on to look closely at how students’ circumstances outside school can influence their trajectories.

Many of Lee’s Lowell classmates who came from immigrant families did take the SAT, of course. But they seemed to her to have parents who were more educated, with more professional jobs, and, even back in China, they had come from different strata. Her experience shows the differences concealed by broad demographic categories—a notorious problem in private education. Between 1959 and this past fall, Black representation among admitted Harvard students increased from less than two per cent to sixteen per cent. But a Harvard Crimson survey of more than half of this year’s freshmen found that more than forty per cent of Black respondents came from the top quarter of U.S. income distribution, a measure far beyond the Black population as a whole: these were pretty fancy people before they got to Harvard Yard. The stakes for public education are even higher, because public education is the first and often the last resort.

Joanna Lam, a senior in Johnson’s A.P. Economics class, is the president of Lowell’s student body, and one of two students in the city elected to be a school-board representative. Lam’s parents are Cambodian immigrants, and for college she was drawn to an élite degree program run between Berkeley and Sciences Po. She could be a poster child for the promises of selective admissions, yet she supports the lottery.

“You can’t have a merit-based system and say it’s fair because, ‘Oh, it’s a public school, you don’t have to pay to get in,’ when you have students who are paying for tutoring, or who have grown up in environments where it’s safe to go to school,” she said. Lam was capable but, in her own view, lucky, too. And, if you had to be both things to ascend through Lowell, then surely the luck was most fairly delivered through a lottery.

Debbie Lee saw a hidden sorting mechanism at Lowell. “It’s a school that assumed people knew how to navigate the educational system already,” she told me, as the rain outside abated. The school flew the flag of élite access for first-generation students, but within that group it was set up to reward those at the socioeconomic top.

October is the April of San Francisco, fickle and cruel. The days are the warmest and sunniest they’ll ever be, though each one brings a fresh chance of wildfire. At Lowell, the first round of grades had been filed for the freshmen, and teachers saw a big change from previous years.

“I have three times as many students as usual failing—instead of one or two, I have three to six,” Wenning, the biology teacher, told me. “I have some students who have done no work the whole first grading period.”

Wenning had contacted students, parents, and counsellors. He’d offered extra-credit points if kids came to see him for tutoring; when they showed up, he’d let them elect to retake one test. He tried to help organize study groups (only one student signed up) and circulated a list of Web sites, podcasts of his own creation, and other resources.

“I’m at the end of my rope in what I can offer,” he told me. “I don’t think some of these students would be doing well at any high school, which makes me wonder why they wanted to come to Lowell.”

Johnson thought that the pandemic, rather than the lottery, might explain much of the change. “I have to keep reminding myself that these guys were halfway through seventh grade when they left school,” she told me. “I notice a difference in my seniors, too.”

In San Francisco, parents grew irate at the decision to keep secondary education remote for nearly three semesters. Last February, the city filed a lawsuit against its own district in an effort to force reopenings. In June, the chair of the board’s parent-advisory committee stepped down and protested what she described as its indifference to “learning loss.” Similar debates were escalating nationally—last year, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the F.B.I. to investigate threats against school-board members and staff—but the mood in San Francisco was unusually sharp. In October, the city authorized a recall election for Collins, Moliga, and the board’s president, Gabriela López, with some eighty thousand signatures for each. The Chronicle, in an editorial, endorsed the recall, and last month all three were removed by public votes of more than seventy per cent. The parents vs. administrator dynamic in SF — the embroiling nature and intense conflict of it — continues to fascinate me. San Francisco is a powerful, highly educated, very rich, very poor, uncommonly beautiful, rawly urban city that, in many ways, sets the trajectory of metropolitan America while serving as a border town to the Asian continent. And it’s tiny. Everything here shows up in distilled, concentrated form.   

Joe Ryan Dominguez, who was hired as Lowell’s principal after the upheavals of last spring, acknowledged weaker performance in the lottery class. “The students who are struggling the most in this first grading period are our ninth-grade students,” he said. About ten per cent had a D or lower in at least one subject; the average freshman G.P.A.s that autumn fell ten per cent from what they had been before the pandemic.

Dominguez, a slender man in his mid-thirties who wears bow ties and roams campus with a walkie-talkie, was a math teacher before he became an administrator. He grew up in Arizona, with a single mother who did not finish high school. In middle school, he began struggling in math class, and she couldn’t help. “I remember seeing the desperation in her face—she took me to the school and asked my teachers whether they could take care of me, and they did,” he said.

When he accepted the principal job at Lowell, Dominguez assumed that the school board had a vision for the school’s transformation. But, since starting, he’d had just one meeting with the board’s president, and only after sending multiple e-mails. He booked a meeting with Moliga, the vice-president, who never showed up. (Moliga says that he has no recollection of any meeting being scheduled.) The hands-off approach confused Dominguez. Back in Tempe, Arizona, “we’d have a school-board member on campus every couple of months, just to see how the kids are doing,” he told me. He supported the lottery—“I had hesitations about being at a school that was selective”—but worried that, if freshman performance continued to be a concern, he’d have full accountability and no support.

Johnson had become desperate. “I’ve had a lot of feelings of inadequacy and failure,” she told me in mid-autumn. “Usually by now I’m getting more content or process questions—‘why’ or ‘how’—but I’m still getting a lot of questions about what words mean.”

Because nearly all Lowell freshmen take World History, there are structures of support outside the classroom. One day, I went to visit an avid class, part of a nonprofit partner program to help students from low-access backgrounds. (The acronym stands for “advancement via individual determination.”) Freshmen broke into groups and took turns presenting material. Near the windows, a girl was at work on algebra. Near the door, a boy in World History analyzed the human effects of industrialization.

“So the good things were more trade, and they created textiles and clothing and stuff like that faster,” he was saying. “The bad stuff was that there were lesser jobs for the people, because machines were doing all the work.”

Avid is meant to augment classroom lessons. In Johnson’s course, industrialization arose at a crucial point in the curriculum, when she would begin to shape students’ understanding of the modern world.

“Landed gentry,” she began one afternoon. “Anyone know what that means?”

A boy’s hand shot up: “Isn’t that one of those guys that have no testicles?”

“No,” Johnson replied. On the board, she drew two triangles resembling the food pyramid. One depicted a climb from peasants through merchants, landed gentry, and aristocrats. The other depicted an ascent from factory workers through shopkeepers, an ownership class, and a shrinking aristocracy. The layers of the old model were highly unequal, she explained, but its people shared towns and relationships of symbiotic accountability. After industrialization, the old gentry tended to marry the ownership class and disengage from feudal bonds. “These people”—she pointed to the factory workers—“don’t even know people in the gentry.”

Johnson’s goal was to explain such narratives while reaching past them—a challenge for a class still struggling to ask those “why” questions. Her students had read a passage from their textbook outlining various reasons that industrialization began in Britain: rivers and canals, iron and coal, banks and so forth.

“But this was also happening in China,” she told the class. “Also in the Islamic Empire.” Modern banking began in Italy; much of Europe had coal and iron deposits. “Your textbook is making it sound like Britain is the only one with iron ore, the only one that has skilled craftsmen, the only one with banks and rivers and canals. What I would try to get you to notice is that there are other places that had these things as well. So therefore—what is the thing that makes Britain different? Dare to be wrong.” Why do you spend this space exploring what they’re learning in class? How does that connect to the larger themes of your piece? Good of you to pick up on this. One of the things that emerged was that the equal-access puzzle at Lowell — this one high school in one cosmopolitan city — is part of a big, long global story that you can trace back decades, and then centuries, to these old issues of industrial-versus-colonial access whose shadows we continue to live under. That history is the background radiation to the piece. Its traces are still with us. And it is history that these students, slumped down at their one-armed desks as they worry about their coming test or the boy next door or whatever, are being educated into. I found that deeply moving. It gave me a little thrill to realize that you could call forth that narrative just by having classroom lessons play out.  

“Capitalism?” a boy suggested.

“You’re right, at the beginning, but capitalism comes out of industrialism—it’s about who owns the machines,” Johnson said. “How about this: Do you remember what industry starts the Industrial Revolution? Talk with your neighbor. Ten seconds.”

There was chattering among the students, then growing silence, as a realization crept across the classroom like a bristle up the spine.

Cotton,” someone said, very softly.

A few students leaned forward at their desks. Brandon looked up.

“Cotton,” Johnson said. “Where is Britain getting its cheap cotton from? And who is growing that?”

The hands of the clock sped forward as the class glided from there. By a logical process of elimination, Johnson had overturned a standing narrative about industrialization and all it wrought, but she had also challenged certain habits of mind. History wasn’t just a list of causes and effects, credits and debts; it was a flow of intersecting domino rows running around the globe. Everybody’s past was implicated.

As the fall progressed, both Arin and Brandon felt their positions to be precarious. Arin was doing well in his classes, but he worried that the success wouldn’t last—a common concern among Lowell students, many of whom had schedules packed like heavy suitcases and lived in fear of the zippers splitting. Ilove this imagery. One of the pleasures of writing is trying to find the image that seems exactly right.  In December, a sleep survey conducted by the school newspaper found that fifty per cent of students had fallen asleep in class. (“Ironically, I got the least amount of sleep when we were working on that,” Rae Wymer, the paper’s co-editor-in-chief, told me.)

Brandon’s fears were more about baseline performance. “To be honest, last unit I was just wandering off—I wasn’t doing my work or nothing,” he said. “Now I’m actually determined. My biology teacher told me that if I keep doing this bad I’m going to have to redo her class next year.” Brandon hadn’t previously been a stellar student, and had come to Lowell at his mother’s urging. But it wasn’t only her dream. Brandon wanted to go to college, even though it wasn’t something his family had done in the past. His aspiration was to be a chef; his father had trained as one, but had to abandon the pursuit when he left Mexico. “I’m trying to follow in his footsteps,” Brandon said.

Despite the stress, the friendship between Arin and Brandon flourished. They ate together. What drew you to this pair in particular? I thought they were great. Each, in his own style, was a character. They were different in a lot of ways — or, I should say, adults would consider them different in a lot of ways — but their friendship was plainly effortless and seemed characteristic of that period, at the start of a new school, when you’re casting out. The friendships of those early days often don’t hold, but that doesn’t make them less real. They’re circumstantial in the best sense. And here was this interesting case where one was performing better under the influence of the other. That’s a complicating twist on this chapter we’ve just been through: sure, your success is influenced by circumstances outside school — they’re from two different backgrounds, with different support structures around them — but other things also go on. It primes the turn toward relational education.  They met up on a weekend to play soccer in the Mission. Johnson noticed that, not long after she started seating the boys next to each other, Brandon began turning in his homework reliably for the first time. It was as if a rope now joined him and Arin in a lead climb, one setting the bolts while the other belayed, and both of them, feeling uncertain on their own, were moving up the cliff together.

For Johnson, this came as a small revelation, and it helped her find her confidence in her work again. She’d been trying every teaching technique she knew, but it turned out that one of the best tools available was just what made the freshman class the freshman class: the mixture of students and the bonds that developed among them. Pedagogy is full of big ideas, but its unofficial golden rule is that, whenever something really works, you keep doing it. Even as Johnson changed her seating chart around, she tried to keep the boys together, silently cheering them on.

If one model of expanding access is to let more people through the door, another relies on curricular design: what happens once students show up inside the building. “We don’t know what these kids are carrying—they need support,” Nicole Henares, a freshman-English teacher, told me in the courtyard one afternoon. “The curriculum has to be culturally responsive.” In her freshman classes, students study, alongside “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” and works by the Bay Area poet Asha Sudra. Henares’s assignments encourage students to develop their own voices. (One prompt invites them to “assume the identity of the character that most stands out to you and write a monologue.”)

There is, however, a third model, which is that education is essentially relational. Access isn’t determined only by which students get past the gate, or by where they come from, but by how they make their way in relation to their teachers and their peers. That kind of access is hard to track; the reason Brandon started doing his homework can’t be captured in numbers. Yet, the more I talked with students, the more I found that relational access was the kind that mattered most to them, and the kind they found most unreliable at Lowell. You intersperse these big-picture sections throughout the piece, where you quite explicitly get at the big philosophical approaches underlying how these issues play out in a school like Lowell. How do you decide where to place these bits of exposition? Ideally, you’re trying to put yourself in the mind of the reader at every turn. What does the reader want at this moment? What does the reader need? Too much conceptual framing is a real killer  —a person can feel like Fortunado in the vault — but you also can’t make readers work too hard. You need to pull some drawstrings now and then, offer some armature.

“In our slavery unit, the teacher let us know that images are going to be disturbing—and she just looked at me and told me, in front of the whole class, if I would like to step out I can, because this will affect ‘your kind of people,’ ” a junior named Aliyah Hunter, the events coördinator of the Black Student Union, said. Her schoolmates in the B.S.U. told me that teachers unsure how to treat period passages containing offensive racial terms would sometimes ask Black students to read them aloud. Other Lowell students described feeling trapped by stereotypes at play among their peers. Jacqueline Juarez, a junior who identifies as Latinx, told me about struggling with math in her freshman year, and getting the cold shoulder when she sought help from classmates. When she asked the teacher, she was told that she should be learning from her peers. Desperate, Jacqueline called her sister, in college, who offered to tutor her.

“Suddenly, I knew more than the other students, and they would approach me for help. I’m, like, No.” She’d realized she’d been left off the group chats that students used for studying, an exclusion that she believed rose from stereotypes about Latinx people and math. This past fall, she began tutoring a freshman who was experiencing the same cold-shouldering, and was thinking of leaving Lowell. Jacqueline sat him down and told him how things were. “I was able to convince him to stay,” she said. “For now.”

The relational vision of education means that performance should be thought of less as a measure of fixed aptitude and more as a quantum path: one outcome among many possible ones. It means that a school like Lowell isn’t in the excellence-sorting game but in the path-making game. And it means that, in shaping equal access, you can’t think only of one individual or group; you have to study how they interact.

Imagine you’re the kind of student often called underprivileged. Your parents struggle with bills, unemployment, prejudice, addiction, mental illness, or all of the above. Through effort and luck, you perform well in school, advance to a good college, and get a first-rate job. You earn, let’s say, a six-figure salary. At thirty or so, you realize that you’ve made it to what’s often called the middle class. Sure, you might run into difficulty from here, but you’re resourceful, informed, and, as a result of your path, well connected. When people speak of educational access for the underprivileged, this is the outcome they hope for.

Perhaps you land in a prospering city, such as San Francisco or New York. Why address the reader in second person like this? Quite often, you’re trying to keep readers from projecting themselves into other people’s stories — this slightly narcissistic thing that we all have a tendency to do. But every now and then you want to invite projection. This is an example. I like the second person. There’s an idea that it’s tacky — in part, I guess, because of its association with choose-your-own-adventure books and sceney 1980s novels — but it belongs to an honorable literary tradition. It’s the poetic address: Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art! Use it, but use it well.  You have kids. Now you notice that, somewhere along the way, the economies of things changed. The costs you confront—a home, child care, education—make your head hurt. Somehow, you are still living on the edge.

Much has been made of working-class Americans who feel cast out of the garden. We hear less about another group with similar anxieties. Call them the pinched middle: supposedly accomplished professionals who now feel that they’re barely holding on. By scrambling onto the middle-class raft, you thought you had reserved a place there for your kids as well. But you’ve done the math, and, though you might have been able to afford private school twenty years ago, when tuition could be below twenty thousand dollars, now tuition is more than fifty thousand (per year! per child!), and the good schools offer slim odds of entry.

For most people, that leaves the public system. Looking at schools in your city, you have visions of being thrown back toward the upbringing you thought you had escaped. And no one is interested in giving you a leg up now: you are the middle class.

Those who speak about Lowell often frame their concerns in terms of access for underprivileged kids, and with good reason. What becomes clear, though, is that, in order to secure that access, access must also be insured for the pinched middle class. If no middle-class stability waits at the top of the ladder, then your climb has been for naught (and heaven forbid you pick up school debt on the way). The access has become a trap.

Middle-class parents told me how stuck they felt. “Private school was never an option for us,” an Oxbridge graduate who runs an events business said. His daughter had been a middle-school valedictorian and aspired to go to Lowell, but didn’t make it past the lottery. He and his wife, both of whom worked full time, couldn’t afford private school: applying cost a hundred dollars per application, and that was just the start. “It’s basically a rich person’s game,” he said.

It is telling that students have begun to feel the middle-class pinch, too. “I used to ask, ‘How many of you want to get a 4.0 because you want to buy your parents a home?,’ and everybody would raise their hands,” Nicole Henares, the English teacher, told me. “Now they don’t, because they know they’re not going to be able to.” Lowell shows that underprivileged access and middle-class access are increasingly twinned. Fulfilling any promises that public education makes depends on genuinely opening the doors to underprivileged students while carrying the striving middle class through, too. This year, for all its trials, Lowell seemed the rare school on its way to getting there.

Winter break drew near. Johnson played “Last Christmas” and “Ocho Kandelikas” as her students worked together in groups. Wenning had holiday lights strung above his whiteboards. In A.P. Economics, a senior with a calculator wondered whether to drop one of his low scores, as Johnson allowed. “Currently, 17.6 per cent of my grade is the final, but if I drop a quiz it becomes 18.4 per cent,” he told a classmate. He decided to hedge.

Yet things were looking up. Several of Wenning’s struggling freshmen were doing better. In World History, Johnson was leading her students toward the big picture. What were the two I-words? she asked. “Industrialism” and “imperialism.” Hadn’t we seen how they were linked—how industrial activity accelerated imperial activity? Could we compare the populations living under industrialism with those living under imperial rule? Yes: both made important migrations starting in the nineteenth century, but they were coming from different places, and with different prospects. Maybe that would end up being important later on.

Outside the classroom, Arin and Brandon were having trouble finding time for each other. As basketball ramped up, Arin started spending lunch in the library, desperate not to fall behind. Brandon, when he sat down to work, found himself getting distracted by his phone. Both boys seemed less propulsive, as if bouncing on a seesaw alone.

Johnson spent her break reflecting on her classroom strategies. When she returned, in January, she divided the class into new work groups and spent time with the students who had been struggling the most. Then she reshuffled the groups again and had the students present to their teammates what they’d learned. Some of those who had been falling behind were now teaching their peers.

“The trick is that the kid has to recognize that they’ve made a step and that it’s solid footing for them, so then, when they step back, they know that it’s not their ability limiting them,” she said. For Brandon, the gains carried. Johnson wouldn’t tell me about specific students’ performances, but she said that kids who had started the semester doing F work, or none at all, were now turning in writing assignments in the B range. One of the most foot-dragging freshmen had shyly asked whether she thought he should enroll in an A.P. history class next year. Yes, she told him, working to hide her excitement.

“In the past, we would ask, you know, Are these kids ‘Lowell’?” She paused in what looked to me like awe. “They are Lowell. These are Lowell students. And, to me, that says that anybody can be a Lowell student.” It just required good support and attentive work from clever teachers. And time.

On January 26th, Johnson and her colleagues attended a meeting with the heads of their union, the United Educators of San Francisco, which was under new leadership. They had recently heard details about a contract extension that was being submitted to the school district, and there was good news: a bunch of money held in escrow for teachers was finally being disbursed, helping to fund two two-thousand-dollar bonuses. But there was also ominous news: the contract would forfeit the extra A.P. funding, the six hundred dollars per test, to help with a budget crisis. Lowell teachers remember this being framed in terms of equity, since low-performing schools had fewer A.P. tests. (A union representative disputed this characterization.) The A.P. cuts were set to expire in a year, but Cassondra Curiel, the head of the union, acknowledges that the district will probably want to extend them. “It is reasonable to prepare for the fact that the district will bring the cuts forward,” she told me. The money would then have to be brought back, if at all, by way of the negotiating table.

Johnson’s stomach dropped when she learned about the cuts. She shakily made some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and, when the question-and-answer period opened, was one of the first to speak. Had the union heads realized what the A.P. money funded? she asked. Lowell got more than two million dollars a year from the funding and used most of it for salaries. With the money forfeited, it would lose—she checked her calculations—about twenty-five full-time teachers.

There was a long silence. At Lowell, the spillover from A.P. funding supports programs such as arts and robotics, as well as those, such as Peer Resources and avid, that help underrepresented students find their way: the very offerings that made Lowell both appealing to middle-class families and viable for students arriving from all backgrounds. Johnson saw a school district at risk of collapsing on itself: the best schools stripped of their competitive extras; the middle class slowly pulling away; enrollment, and thus funding, continuing to fall; underprivileged kids being chased up an achievement path to nowhere—all while the prosperous further enriched and sealed off their caste through private access. I like how you framed this very tangible, concrete budget change as emblematic of the big-picture widening chasm of access the school is meant to address. This is another drawstring moment, which I noticed arose organically from her concern. The less lifting I have to do, the better.

Union voting on the contract ended on February 7th. It was ratified, fifty-seven to forty-three. Soon after President Biden finished his State of the Union address last Tuesday, the school board prepared to vote on acceptance. Joanna Lam, via Zoom, pressed the district’s representatives for details of the contract’s effects: “Will there be a loss of either A.P. or elective courses as a result of this tentative agreement passing?”

“At this time, we do not anticipate there will be a reduction in courses,” the assistant superintendent of high schools answered.

When I spoke with Dominguez, he was raking over the budgets, figuring out what could be rescued. Between system-wide cuts and the forfeited A.P. funds, he told me, Lowell would lose $3.6 million, dropping its per-pupil funding to the bottom of the district. It would lose between twenty-one and twenty-eight educators, about twenty per cent of its faculty; between one and three teachers would likely be pink-slipped, and the district would scatter the rest to other institutions. Dominguez thought he’d eked out a way to hold on to avid—for one more year, at least—but he hadn’t figured out how to keep Peer Resources as it currently existed, or Lowell’s arts and languages programs: with so much money gone, it was impossible to fund what once made Lowell unique.

During a call-in period at the board meeting, Aliyah Hunter joined other B.S.U. members in pleading against the contract. “Please listen to students,” she said. A junior named Cal Kinoshita, who is one of the leaders of Lowell’s parliamentary debate team, followed. “You hear all these students get on here, some of them borderline crying, Black and brown students,” he said, accusing the board of “stripping the comfort away from marginalized students—it’s not humane.”

The grownups on the school board considered the matter. “I think it’s been well known for a long, long time that this extra prep period for A.P. has been an inequitable practice,” Matt Alexander, a non-recalled board member, said.

“This funding model basically means that schools that have students that are more likely to take tests get more money,” Collins, voting while waiting out her replacement, said.

“Again, we are met with the opportunity to correct a decades-long issue around this funding inequity,” López, also waiting out her recall replacement, said. In the end, only Lam, the student, voted against the contract.

I visited Johnson at school not long before the final meeting. She hadn’t cooked or exercised in days. “I walked into my office after the union vote,” she said, “and I worried, You’re not going to be here next year, you’re not going to be here next year, and you’re not going to be here next year. Then I went to my class and tried to teach without crying.”

She had organized a working group and helped assemble a picket. Here, she thought, was a cause worth fighting for. Johnson and her colleagues had spent months in the trenches of the equity project, trying to transform Lowell into a stellar urban school that anyone in town could gain access to. And they had started to succeed. Now, instead of sharing the good, there had been a cursory equalizing of numbers, a dismantling of structures that had brought about real equity. “If you don’t have leaders willing to look beyond the gray area, beyond the outward number of ‘fair,’ ” she told me, glancing at the classroom around her, “you’re going to end up hurting the people that you’re trying to help.” Why did you choose to close on this quote? What did you want to leave your reader with? One of my general efforts, to the extent I have general efforts, is to step back from ideal theories of change — notions about the way things should work — and toward what actually delivers change of the kind people want. This is a very ideological moment. Folks like to go jousting with high, general principles and various grand, untested schemes. A lot of people simply absorb and repeat what they hear other eloquent people say. Meanwhile, real individuals continue to have real problems, and fresh, ground-up efforts at their resolution often bring fresh side effects. It should be obvious, but isn’t, that having a view about a problem isn’t the same as thinking about it. Thinking means considering second- and third-order effects; it means hearing a lot of experiences and revising your position. I have as many reflexive views as anybody; probably more. But when I really want to think a subject through? That’s when I get out the notepad and try to report.  

Published in the print edition of the March 14, 2022, issue, with the headline “The Access Trap.”


Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.

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