An unrestricted atmosphere of serious learning

When you visit Lowell High School, it's best to watch your step, lest you stumble over a budding scholar. For inevitably at San Francisco's most prestigious public high school, the hallway floors are scattered with students deep into Shakespeare, or advanced electronics, or French 8.

Lowell High, California's oldest public secondary school, is one of a handful of outstanding big-city high schools around the country emphasizing high academic achievement and college preparation. The school's philosophy is relatively simple: Gather together the cream of San Francisco's junior high school crop, offer a wide range of academic subjects, maintain an unrestricted atmosphere of serious learning (without forgetting the fun), and let the kids' own talents and capabilities flower and grow.

If this sounds "elitist," it is, in the sense that a high degree of scholastic aptitude as well as commitment is required for admission to Lowell. But there is a good geographic and ethnic mix of young San Franciscans here, including, as the principal, Alan Fibish, points out, "many from solid working-class areas." To underscore this point he explains that one-third of the students are eligible for federally subsidized school lunches.

Some 2,000 youngsters apply each year for 750 places in Lowell's freshman class, including 400 applicants from private and parochial junior highs. Until recently, admission was based solely on academic grades earned in 7th and 8th grades, with the latter weighted doubly. Beginning in 1981, scores on the California Test of Basic Skills (which is administered to 8th-graders throughout the state) will also be a determining factor. IQ levels are not included.

While Lowell is racially and ethnically integrated, some groups are overrepresented and some are underrepresented, compared with the city's general school population. Only 7 percent of the students are black (compared with 27 percent citywide), and 6.5 percent are Hispanic (compared with 15 percent). Chinese students, on the other hand, account for 46 percent of Lowell undergraduates -- more than twice the citywide average. In all, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino students make up nearly 60 percent of the total.

For this reason, 10 percent of the 3,100 slots at Lowell are reserved for special admissions from the underrepresented groups. But as Dr. Fibish says, "They are still solid, solid students," with at least B-plus averages on entering Lowell. Some years ago, the school survived a discrimination lawsuit when a federal judge held its admission policy and special academic program to be constitutional.

Lowell offers a very wide range of academic subjects (including nine languages, making it one of the largest high school language departments in the United States) and has stiff course requirements. Students must take at least four academic courses per semester, although some take as many as seven.

"You can make it extremely hard for yourself," says Eric Dummel, a senior who spends three hours a day on homework. "But even if you take easy courses, you're going to have to work hard. Most of the people who come here work against their upper limitations."

Class scheduling is structured more like college than high school, and students are given plenty of free time to work on their own. There are seven "resource centers" (specialized libraries); empty classrooms are never locked; and many students can be seen hunkered down in nooks and crannies or hallways studying quietly. Discipline problems and unaccounted-for absences are almost nonexistent.

Grade competition is stiff at Lowell, but there also is a great deal of cooperation among students. Many become "teaching assistants," tutoring other students.

At the same time, life at Lowell High is not an "all work and no play" grind. There are lots of sports activities, award-winning musical groups, and more organized dances than at any other San Francisco high school.

But as Dr. Fibish reminds a visitor, "It's generally accepted that we're a school where learning is them important activity."

Lowell students inevitably prove this to be true. The school's honors and advanced-placement programs are among the best in the country, and 99 percent of last year's graduating class went on to college.

Asked whether all of this is due more to what Lowell offers or to what the students themselves bring to the school, officials can only speculate. But one thing is certain: There is an atmosphere, an attitude, here that makes Lowell High School one of the very best in the nation.

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