What Happens When an Élite Public School Becomes Open to All?

“Landed gentry,” she began one afternoon. “Anyone know what that means?”

A boy’s hand shot up: “Isn’t that one of those guys that have no testicles?”

“No,” Johnson replied. On the board, she drew two triangles resembling the food pyramid. One depicted a climb from peasants through merchants, landed gentry, and aristocrats. The other depicted an ascent from factory workers through shopkeepers, an ownership class, and a shrinking aristocracy. The layers of the old model were highly unequal, she explained, but its people shared towns and relationships of symbiotic accountability. After industrialization, the old gentry tended to marry the ownership class and disengage from feudal bonds. “These people”—she pointed to the factory workers—“don’t even know people in the gentry.”

Cartoon by David Borchart

Johnson’s goal was to explain such narratives while reaching past them—a challenge for a class still struggling to ask those “why” questions. Her students had read a passage from their textbook outlining various reasons that industrialization began in Britain: rivers and canals, iron and coal, banks and so forth.

“But this was also happening in China,” she told the class. “Also in the Islamic Empire.” Modern banking began in Italy; much of Europe had coal and iron deposits. “Your textbook is making it sound like Britain is the only one with iron ore, the only one that has skilled craftsmen, the only one with banks and rivers and canals. What I would try to get you to notice is that there are other places that had these things as well. So therefore—what is the thing that makes Britain different? Dare to be wrong.”

“Capitalism?” a boy suggested.

“You’re right, at the beginning, but capitalism comes out of industrialism—it’s about who owns the machines,” Johnson said. “How about this: Do you remember what industry starts the Industrial Revolution? Talk with your neighbor. Ten seconds.”

There was chattering among the students, then growing silence, as a realization crept across the classroom like a bristle up the spine.

Cotton,” someone said, very softly.

A few students leaned forward at their desks. Brandon looked up.

“Cotton,” Johnson said. “Where is Britain getting its cheap cotton from? And who is growing that?”

The hands of the clock sped forward as the class glided from there. By a logical process of elimination, Johnson had overturned a standing narrative about industrialization and all it wrought, but she had also challenged certain habits of mind. History wasn’t just a list of causes and effects, credits and debts; it was a flow of intersecting domino rows running around the globe. Everybody’s past was implicated.

As the fall progressed, both Arin and Brandon felt their positions to be precarious. Arin was doing well in his classes, but he worried that the success wouldn’t last—a common concern among Lowell students, many of whom had schedules packed like heavy suitcases and lived in fear of the zippers splitting. In December, a sleep survey conducted by the school newspaper found that fifty per cent of students had fallen asleep in class. (“Ironically, I got the least amount of sleep when we were working on that,” Rae Wymer, the paper’s co-editor-in-chief, told me.)

Arin, a freshman, balances academics and basketball, and his father helps him budget out his schedule. “I talked with several high-school students before coming, and they’re all, like, ‘Time management, time management, time management!,’ ” he said.

Brandon’s fears were more about baseline performance. “To be honest, last unit I was just wandering off—I wasn’t doing my work or nothing,” he said. “Now I’m actually determined. My biology teacher told me that if I keep doing this bad I’m going to have to redo her class next year.” Brandon hadn’t previously been a stellar student, and had come to Lowell at his mother’s urging. But it wasn’t only her dream. Brandon wanted to go to college, even though it wasn’t something his family had done in the past. His aspiration was to be a chef; his father had trained as one, but had to abandon the pursuit when he left Mexico. “I’m trying to follow in his footsteps,” Brandon said.

Despite the stress, the friendship between Arin and Brandon flourished. They ate together. They met up on a weekend to play soccer in the Mission. Johnson noticed that, not long after she started seating the boys next to each other, Brandon began turning in his homework reliably for the first time. It was as if a rope now joined him and Arin in a lead climb, one setting the bolts while the other belayed, and both of them, feeling uncertain on their own, were moving up the cliff together.

For Johnson, this came as a small revelation, and it helped her find her confidence in her work again. She’d been trying every teaching technique she knew, but it turned out that one of the best tools available was just what made the freshman class the freshman class: the mixture of students and the bonds that developed among them. Pedagogy is full of big ideas, but its unofficial golden rule is that, whenever something really works, you keep doing it. Even as Johnson changed her seating chart around, she tried to keep the boys together, silently cheering them on.

If one model of expanding access is to let more people through the door, another relies on curricular design: what happens once students show up inside the building. “We don’t know what these kids are carrying—they need support,” Nicole Henares, a freshman-English teacher, told me in the courtyard one afternoon. “The curriculum has to be culturally responsive.” In her freshman classes, students study, alongside “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” and works by the Bay Area poet Asha Sudra. Henares’s assignments encourage students to develop their own voices. (One prompt invites them to “assume the identity of the character that most stands out to you and write a monologue.”)

There is, however, a third model, which is that education is essentially relational. Access isn’t determined only by which students get past the gate, or by where they come from, but by how they make their way in relation to their teachers and their peers. That kind of access is hard to track; the reason Brandon started doing his homework can’t be captured in numbers. Yet, the more I talked with students, the more I found that relational access was the kind that mattered most to them, and the kind they found most unreliable at Lowell.

“In our slavery unit, the teacher let us know that images are going to be disturbing—and she just looked at me and told me, in front of the whole class, if I would like to step out I can, because this will affect ‘your kind of people,’ ” a junior named Aliyah Hunter, the events coördinator of the Black Student Union, said. Her schoolmates in the B.S.U. told me that teachers unsure how to treat period passages containing offensive racial terms would sometimes ask Black students to read them aloud. Other Lowell students described feeling trapped by stereotypes at play among their peers. Jacqueline Juarez, a junior who identifies as Latinx, told me about struggling with math in her freshman year, and getting the cold shoulder when she sought help from classmates. When she asked the teacher, she was told that she should be learning from her peers. Desperate, Jacqueline called her sister, in college, who offered to tutor her.

“Suddenly, I knew more than the other students, and they would approach me for help. I’m, like, No.” She’d realized she’d been left off the group chats that students used for studying, an exclusion that she believed rose from stereotypes about Latinx people and math. This past fall, she began tutoring a freshman who was experiencing the same cold-shouldering, and was thinking of leaving Lowell. Jacqueline sat him down and told him how things were. “I was able to convince him to stay,” she said. “For now.”

The relational vision of education means that performance should be thought of less as a measure of fixed aptitude and more as a quantum path: one outcome among many possible ones. It means that a school like Lowell isn’t in the excellence-sorting game but in the path-making game. And it means that, in shaping equal access, you can’t think only of one individual or group; you have to study how they interact.

Imagine you’re the kind of student often called underprivileged. Your parents struggle with bills, unemployment, prejudice, addiction, mental illness, or all of the above. Through effort and luck, you perform well in school, advance to a good college, and get a first-rate job. You earn, let’s say, a six-figure salary. At thirty or so, you realize that you’ve made it to what’s often called the middle class. Sure, you might run into difficulty from here, but you’re resourceful, informed, and, as a result of your path, well connected. When people speak of educational access for the underprivileged, this is the outcome they hope for.

Perhaps you land in a prospering city, such as San Francisco or New York. You have kids. Now you notice that, somewhere along the way, the economies of things changed. The costs you confront—a home, child care, education—make your head hurt. Somehow, you are still living on the edge.

Much has been made of working-class Americans who feel cast out of the garden. We hear less about another group with similar anxieties. Call them the pinched middle: supposedly accomplished professionals who now feel that they’re barely holding on. By scrambling onto the middle-class raft, you thought you had reserved a place there for your kids as well. But you’ve done the math, and, though you might have been able to afford private school twenty years ago, when tuition could be below twenty thousand dollars, now tuition is more than fifty thousand (per year! per child!), and the good schools offer slim odds of entry.

For most people, that leaves the public system. Looking at schools in your city, you have visions of being thrown back toward the upbringing you thought you had escaped. And no one is interested in giving you a leg up now: you are the middle class.

Those who speak about Lowell often frame their concerns in terms of access for underprivileged kids, and with good reason. What becomes clear, though, is that, in order to secure that access, access must also be insured for the pinched middle class. If no middle-class stability waits at the top of the ladder, then your climb has been for naught (and heaven forbid you pick up school debt on the way). The access has become a trap.

“The Realtor swore it was dormant.”
Cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein

Middle-class parents told me how stuck they felt. “Private school was never an option for us,” an Oxbridge graduate who runs an events business said. His daughter had been a middle-school valedictorian and aspired to go to Lowell, but didn’t make it past the lottery. He and his wife, both of whom worked full time, couldn’t afford private school: applying cost a hundred dollars per application, and that was just the start. “It’s basically a rich person’s game,” he said.

It is telling that students have begun to feel the middle-class pinch, too. “I used to ask, ‘How many of you want to get a 4.0 because you want to buy your parents a home?,’ and everybody would raise their hands,” Nicole Henares, the English teacher, told me. “Now they don’t, because they know they’re not going to be able to.” Lowell shows that underprivileged access and middle-class access are increasingly twinned. Fulfilling any promises that public education makes depends on genuinely opening the doors to underprivileged students while carrying the striving middle class through, too. This year, for all its trials, Lowell seemed the rare school on its way to getting there.

Winter break drew near. Johnson played “Last Christmas” and “Ocho Kandelikas” as her students worked together in groups. Wenning had holiday lights strung above his whiteboards. In A.P. Economics, a senior with a calculator wondered whether to drop one of his low scores, as Johnson allowed. “Currently, 17.6 per cent of my grade is the final, but if I drop a quiz it becomes 18.4 per cent,” he told a classmate. He decided to hedge.

Yet things were looking up. Several of Wenning’s struggling freshmen were doing better. In World History, Johnson was leading her students toward the big picture. What were the two I-words? she asked. “Industrialism” and “imperialism.” Hadn’t we seen how they were linked—how industrial activity accelerated imperial activity? Could we compare the populations living under industrialism with those living under imperial rule? Yes: both made important migrations starting in the nineteenth century, but they were coming from different places, and with different prospects. Maybe that would end up being important later on.

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