Lowell High School Doc Premieres at Sundance While Campus Reels from Racist Incident

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Lowell High School Senior Alvan Cai in a scene from the documentary "Try Harder!" The film is by San Francisco director Debbie Lum. It receives its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy Try Harder! Film / Lou Nakasako)

Bay Area filmmaker Debbie Lum’s new documentary Try Harder! begins by underscoring popular beliefs about Lowell High School:

The nationally ranked San Francisco public high school is highly competitive (“Lowell is the ultimate self-confidence crusher!”); the students are excellent at multitasking (“I’m the captain of the tennis team. I’m also co-president of Lowell BuildOn, vice president of Girls who Code and the editor of the school newspaper too!”); and the majority are Asian American (“My friend, he said, ‘Oh, you go to an Asian Excellency School!’”)

But Lum is interested in digging beneath the stereotypes with her documentary—especially when it comes to race.

Try Harder! shows the pressures facing a group of high-achieving seniors at Lowell as they strive to get accepted at top universities. The world premiere of the movie at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend comes as the school is reeling from the latest in a string of racist incidents on campus.

“My film explores what it means to be stuck in boxes, especially along the lines of racial identity and how that impacts the college application process,” Lum says in an online interview with KQED.

In the movie, teacher Scott Dickerman tries to encourage students to look beyond the Ivy League, because of allegations against some elite schools, like Harvard, of discriminating against Asian American applicants.

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“Even if you are a student who should be accepted at a school like this, you may not get in anyway,” Dickerman says. “And that in many cases has to do with a little thing called ethnicity.”

According to San Francisco Unified School District data for the 2019–2020 academic year, more than 50% of Lowell students identify as Asian American—almost double the average for San Francisco public schools.

Meanwhile, less than 2% are Black, which comes with its own set of challenges.

In one scene, student Rachael Schmidt talks about the time she got a bad grade in chemistry class. She blurted out to her classmates that her mom would be upset.

(L to R) Virginia Marshall, President of the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators and Co-chair of San Francisco African American Honor Roll with honor student Rachael Schmidt in a scene from Try Harder! directed by Debbie Lum. (Courtesy Try Harder! Film / Lou Nakasako)

“The girl across the table, she asks me, ‘Well, what ethnicity is your mom?’ And I said, ‘She’s African American,’” Schmidt says. “And she said, ‘That’s so weird, because I didn’t expect for Black people to actually care about their grades.’”

Lum says she observed micro-aggressions like this regularly at Lowell while shooting her film. The director began her work on the documentary not long after nearly 30 students staged a walkout protesting racism at the school in 2016.

So Lum wasn’t surprised to hear the news about the posting of anti-Black and anti-semitic slurs on a school-sponsored messaging platform last week.

“It is a problem at Lowell,” Lum says.

In an interview with KQED, San Francisco board of education president Gabriela Lopez says Lowell often gets media attention because of its national profile.

“This is a high school that a lot of people know and pay attention to,” Lopez says.

But she says the prestigious institution is by no means the only local public school grappling with racism.

“Whether it be in our virtual space, whether it be in our physical classrooms, this is not the first time, unfortunately, that it’s happened,” Lopez says.

Current Lowell senior Justine Orgel. (Courtesy Justine Orgel)

Current Lowell High School senior Justine Orgel is part of a group of students that publicly condemned last week’s racist attacks. She says the school’s exclusive admissions policy based on test scores is at least partly to blame.

“We have this lack of representation of Black students, Hispanic students,” Orgel says.

The anger around racial disparities has also been exacerbated by the school board’s decision last fall to temporarily admit next year’s freshman class at Lowell using the lottery system it uses for other local schools, rather than relying on the selective grades and testing evaluation for which Lowell’s known. The decision was made because of the switch to pass/fail grading during the pandemic.

“With the lottery issue came lots of anger on different sides,” Orgel says. “Some people are angry because they don’t want the academic environment of Lowell to change, or they think getting rid of a merit-based system would allow anyone to enroll, implying that they don’t feel that these new students—more diverse groups since there are no barriers to entry other than lottery—deserve the spots. This triggers anger from other sides who feel that this attitude perpetuates systemic racism.”

Also of note: Lowell High School is among the 44 public schools in the city the school board voted this week to rename in light of the unethical ties of their namesakes. Nineteenth century writer James Russell Lowell was an abolitionist. But the committee responsible for looking into the namesakes of San Francisco schools question Lowell’s commitment to the anti-slavery cause and say he made  statements about the superiority of whites over Blacks.

Orgel says she wants to see Try Harder!. “I hope the film will give audiences the chance to see what the students at Lowell High School are really up against,” she says.