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‘No One Was Asking What We Thought’: San Francisco Students Weigh in on School District Controversies

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Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell High School senior and student delegate for the district, standing outside her school in San Francisco on Jan. 29, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco public schools are preparing to reopen their doors to students this month – for the first time in over a year. But much of the news about the district has been laser focused on its embattled school board, and most recently, on one particular commissioner.

Late last week, the board, in a 5-2 no-confidence vote, removed Alison Collins as board vice president, and stripped her of her committee positions. The move came after a parent group pushing to recall Collins and two other board members circulated a series of controversial tweets she wrote in 2016 that criticize Asian Americans for not supporting other minority groups and for using “white supremacist thinking” to get ahead.

The posts were resurfaced amid a surge of violence and harassment against Asian Americans in the Bay Area and around the country, including a mass shooting in Georgia that killed six Asian women and two others.

The story further blew up this week, when Collins sued the district and her fellow board members, accusing them of violating her constitutional rights and inflicting “irreparable harm.” The suit demands that she be reinstated to her leadership positions and seeks nearly $90 million in damages.

Adults have taken center stage in this and the many other controversies enveloping the school board this year, leaving the voices of students — those with most at stake — notably underrepresented.

That was evident in a school board meeting earlier this month, just days after the Collins tweets were unearthed. During the palpably tense meeting, attended by around 1,000 people, only a few students offered comments.

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One of them was Shavonne Hines-Foster, a Lowell High School senior and student delegate for the district.

‘Just Encouraging People Not to Be Nasty’

“I'm not offering a statement, I'm offering really a project that me and my friends were able to create amidst everything that's happening,” Hines-Foster said during the meeting, introducing an analysis she produced with two other students, titled “A Balanced Analysis of Commissioner Collins’ Tweets.”

“Really just encouraging people not to be nasty,” she told attendees. “A lot of students have stayed away from this because a lot of you are nasty, very nasty in how you engage in this conversation and bring in this topic.”

Hines-Foster, a member of Lowell’s Black Student Union, has been shouted down by adults during a board meeting when calling out racism at her own school.

“So a lot of us feel like it isn’t our place to be engaged, because we don’t want to be swept over or taken in or attacked as a casualty,” she added.

Vishal Krishnaiah, a junior at Lowell High School, said he understood the message Alison Collins was getting at in her 2016 tweets, "but the way she said it is atrocious." (Courtesy of Vishal Krishnaiah)

Lowell High School junior Vishal Krishnaiah, who also worked on the presentation, says that while Collins had drawn attention to a serious issue, the tweets she wrote crossed the line — and were grounds for her resignation.

“I understand the message she was trying to get to. Just you know, anti-Blackness in the Asian community,” he said. “I think it’s a very real thing. I understand the message, but the way she said it is atrocious.

George Washington High School senior Madeline Cho, the third student working on the project, offered a different perspective, arguing that the media coverage of the tweets has only shown one side of the issue. In reading Collins' tweets, Cho says, she saw a mother pleading for people to come together to dismantle racism.

To really engage in a constructive conversation, she said, people need to listen to the voices of those most hurt by racism and discrimination in San Francisco schools.

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"There needs to be just an open mindedness and a setting down of ego and pride, especially by a lot of politicians and particularly parents, who seem the most hesitant to just calm down and just listen," she said.

Cho also said the context around the posts is important. When Collins made the tweets in 2016, there were a lot of conversations in the community about people of color who were supportive of policies being espoused by Donald Trump and those of other conservative politicians, she said.

Cho, who doesn’t think Collins should resign, also says the tweets never would have resurfaced if some alumni and parents weren’t so upset about the board’s recent vote to change Lowell’s admissions policies.

Collins championed ending the elite school’s merit-based admissions policy, one that she argued perpetuated segregation and exclusion. Less than 2% of the school’s students are Black, while more than half are Asian American.

In February, also in a 5-2 vote, the school board voted to strip Lowell of that admissions system, one that has been in place for decades. In their presentation, the three students pointed out that the tweets were dug up by Lowell alum Diane Yap, someone who they say deserves some scrutiny for her own previous social media posts. Yap is also vice president of the Friends of Lowell Foundation, a recently formed group looking to reinstate the school's grade-based admissions policy.

‘Drowned Out’

Cho said she's sickened by the idea that someone was purposefully digging up dirt on Collins.

In the weeks before the tweets resurfaced, Cho said, she had been feeling deeply troubled and scared by the ongoing attacks against the AAPI community, particularly the ones targeting elders. But she said the conversation about Collins has been reduced to something it isn’t.

"I’m particularly upset, and rather disgusted I think, at a lot of people’s use of Asian American pain right now as a political wedge, and a way to push the political agenda," she said.

Cho said she too is worried about being attacked for expressing her views, particularly after a controversy she experienced a few years ago at her own school.

Madeline Cho, a senior at George Washington High School,
Madeline Cho, a senior at George Washington High School, is calling for a serious dialogue on race in San Francisco schools. (Courtesy of Madeline Cho)

Back in 2019, before Lowell dominated headlines, George Washington High School became a political flashpoint, when the school board voted to paint over Depression-era murals that depict Washington as a slave owner. After a furious backlash, the board ultimately moved to simply cover them up.

“It was very saddening to see,” Cho said. “I think the adult voices really, really, really just totally drowned out the student voices. Nobody really was asking us what we thought.”

The Equity Issue

The admissions changes at Lowell that Collins spearheaded seem to have already had an impact. The preliminary data show the share of Hispanic students accepted into Lowell for the next school year grew by 10 percentage points, while the share of Black students grew by nearly 3 percentage points.

Meanwhile, the share of incoming white and Asian students at the school — who still make up the vast majority — fell slightly.

But students like Cho and Krishnaiah both agree that changing who gets into Lowell won’t solve the bigger systemic issues they care about, like making education more equitable for all students.

And that’s the dialogue they want their city leaders to have.

That sentiment was echoed by Amy Chang, a senior at Lowell, who said that her school and the district as a whole have been used as fodder to push partisan issues while many students continue to struggle.

In fifth grade, she says, she was among only four students in her class of almost 30 who could read at grade level. The education offered at Lowell is the baseline that should be provided to all students, she said.

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“These are the lives of actual students,” she said. “These are actual students that are coming into school ... that are not getting the education they deserve.”

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