What Admissions System Would I Choose for a High School?

Aceadmiral’s comment from last week’s post made me wonder: what admissions system would I design for Lowell?

I’m NOT the one who should make this decision. I’m not a Lowell alum, I’ve never worked at Lowell, I’ve never shared a household with a Lowell student. Heck, nobody elected me to the school board. True, I attended a public high school in San Francisco, but that means I might be a troll. Rivalries between different public high schools exist, and there’s a risk I may want to trash Lowell.

But since there’s zero chance I’ll influence this, there’s no harm in me putting out this thought experiment: what if current Lowell students controlled admissions?

Aceadmiral made a good point about how good admissions systems build community. This sometimes leads to creating self-reinforcing insider clubs, like the universities with legacy admissions. On the other hand… a student who isn’t admitted to Lowell can still attend another public high school in San Francisco. The school district has an obligation to provide excellent education at every school, not Lowell. To the extent the school district isn’t meeting that obligation, it needs to fix that.

Why would I want to put students in charge of admissions? The best news coverage I’ve seen of the Lowell admissions stuff is from Lowell’s student newspaper. They understand the key issues better than any of the mainstream newspaper journalists. Maybe because they live and breathe Lowell student life. I think I’d sooner vote for any of the students who write for Lowell’s newspaper in school board elections than the current (or soon-to-be-appointed) board member. I’m not the only San Francisco voter who has noticed the quality of Lowell’s student newspaper. Lowell student journalists, if you have political ambitions, this is a great opportunity for you once you turn 18. You’ll have my vote.

What was I talking about? Ah yes, my dream admissions system for Lowell (or any other high school, to be honest).

The students would design the admissions system every year. The juniors would come up with proposals for 1) criteria and 2) how applicants would be judged. Why juniors? First, they’ve been in the school for a few years, and coming up with the winning admissions proposal would look good on college applications.

Then the seniors would vote on which proposal is put in place. They have experience, but they are also done with high school, so they may be less invested. Voting would be the least-effort way to take part in admissions.

Finally, the freshmen and sophomores would execute the admissions plan. They have fresh memories of the admissions process themselves, and handling admissions would be educational.

For example, let’s say a junior came up with the criterion ‘we want students who are bookworms’ and their proposed method was ‘interview applicants about their favorite books.’ Let’s say that’s the proposal the seniors voted for. Then the freshmen and sophomores would conduct the interviews and decide who passed.

This system has many potential variations. Maybe freshmen and sophomores vote on the system too, not just the seniors. Or the seniors conduct the admissions process because they are the most experienced. Or there’s no division of labor based on grade, they all take part equally. But I think you get the gist.

Ideally, I’d want teachers/administrators to only intervene if students do something dangerous (like fraternity/sorority hazing) or illegal. If the admissions system changes every year, it may be difficult/expensive to vet that every system is entirely legal and this may kill this entire proposal. If so, I’d fall back on having a consistent admissions system every year which has been legally vetted, BUT the students run the system and make admissions decisions. For example, if the admission criterion is ‘which applicants write the best essays explaining why they would be good Lowell students?’ the students could read the essays and choose which applicants to admit.

Would the students make unfair decisions? I’m sure they would. I also think they would be no more unfair than anyone else. They have the greatest empathy with applicants, and as the writing published in Lowell’s student newspaper proves, they care about equity and justice. To be honest, they discuss those issues with greater nuance than many ‘grownup’ publications in the city (and much better than the school board).

Handing the reins of power to the students would teach them much and allow them to shape their own community.

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