Lowell is the only public high school in San Francisco where students have to take a test to get in. It is the top public school in the city for college readiness and one of the best in the state.
Students at Lowell are mainly focused on one thing: getting into college. They say that sets the tone for the environment here.
"Everyone at Lowell is stressed," says senior Santiago Alvarez.
"When I got here it was just like school, school, school, everybody's stressed out just to get that A," adds Koreena Ortiz, another senior. "At one time I was wanting to drop out, I couldn’t do it no more."
In addition to those stresses, Ortiz and Alvarez say there’s an additional stress if you are a minority student on campus. What they mean by minority is black, Latino, Filipino and Pacific Islander. The majority of students at Lowell are Asian or white.
Race at Lowell Not Exactly Black and White
Alvarez, who identifies as Filipino, Puerto Rican and Italian, says being in the minority makes it tough to fit in.
"It’s a lot harder if you don’t feel like you belong, or if you don’t feel included," Alvarez says.
Especially in the classroom. Ortiz describes teachers asking classes to divide into small groups of three or four students.
"Ten seconds later it’s either just me by myself or me and another person [of color]," Ortiz says.
The way Ortiz -- who identifies as Samoan, Puerto Rican and Chicano -- sees it, her peers assume she’s not smart enough.
"We have to ask the teacher, 'No one wants me in their group, can you put me in a group?' Like it’s that sad," she says. "That happens a lot, so I’d rather just work by myself because no one wanna be in a group with me."
Some of the students of color I spoke to say these actions are subtle yet offensive. Lowell Principal Andrew Ishibashi says he realizes this is not going to make a welcoming environment for future students of color.
"For the last nine years since I've been principal, I've been recruiting and setting up special programs for African-Americans and Latinos," Ishibashi says.
But something that happened last winter didn’t help his efforts.
A student put up a racially insensitive poster on a school bulletin board that stereotyped black people as entertainers, fast-food employees and gang members.
Tsia Blacksher, co-president of the Lowell Black Student Union, led a walkout in protest with about 20 other students.
"With the recent events we were talking about having mandatory ethnic [studies] classes," Blacksher says.
The Black Student Union also delivered a list of demands to the school board, including mandatory ethnic studies classes, a full-time African-American recruitment officer and an African-American community center on campus.
AP or Ethnic Studies?
Principal Ishibashi says he's working on the demands. As part of an elective program the school board adopted in December 2014, a Lowell teacher is leading an ethnic studies class with a curriculum provided by the district.
But Ishibashi says requiring students to take the class is another matter.
"It’s very difficult because you already have students taking six to seven classes," Ishibashi says. "And to make another graduation requirement just makes it more difficult for the student."
There are some students who would rather take an advanced placement course, he says. For them, ethnic studies isn't a priority, and he wouldn't want to force them.
"For us it’s a priority but for students, you can’t make it their priority," Ishibashi says.
'We Definitely Need Ethnic Studies'
Senior Lena Truong self-identifies as being in the Asian student majority.
She says many of her peers are just too busy to care about the way that capitalism, racism and sexism has oppressed people of color in the past. She, however, chose to make ethnic studies a priority.
"Imagine what it’s like not to know your own history. Imagine what it’s like not to see yourself in your textbook and have your history kind of erased or not viewed as important," she says. "We definitely need ethnic studies."
Truong says there’s not much solidarity between the majority of students who are white and Asian and the other students of color. The lack of support is evident when students fail to understand why a poster is offensive -- or exclude people who don’t look like them in group projects.
That’s why the San Francisco Unified School District is working on infusing culturally relevant content into the basic history curriculum.
Artnelson Concordia oversees ethnic studies for the district. He is determined to get this done over the next couple of years.
He says it's a challenge to get students from more privileged backgrounds involved in the process.
"How do we teach about oppression?" he asks. "How do we make it that they’re not seen as the enemy and rather invite them to the solution to addressing the suffering of many of their classmates?"
To Concordia, if students can opt out of learning about certain cultures and systems of oppression, the value of ethnic studies is not as powerful.
Many students at Lowell High School agree. Many want their peers to understand their reality so they can help break down barriers in the classroom and out in the real world.