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A Public School Kept Afloat by Private Donations

Education cuts have affected even top schools like Lowell High, which relies partly on alumni donations to make ends meet

A public school is one “maintained at public expense,” the dictionary says. By that definition, San Francisco might receive an “incomplete” for its financial support of the city’s schools, including Lowell High School, one of the nation’s best public schools.

Over the past few years, the San Francisco Unified School District has been unable to pay for all of the school’s operating expenses. To meet the shortfall, alumni, parents and students have stepped in with more than $1 million in private donations.

The fundraising success is on one level inspiring; the amount raised would make many colleges envious. But at the same time, it raises troubling questions about society’s commitment to excellence in public schools.

Competition to get into Lowell, near Lake Merced, is fierce. The academics are demanding, and each year the city’s best students vie to become one of approximately 650 incoming freshmen. (Parents from outside San Francisco have been caught lying about residency to enroll their children.)

The school has produced an impressive list of alumni, including Justice Stephen G. Breyer of the United States Supreme Court; Gov. Edmund G. Brown Sr.; the artist Alexander Calder; the actress Carol Channing; and the author Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snicket.

“There was a lot of urgency to save a lot of things at the school,” said Stephen King, who manages the fundraising for the Parents Teachers Students Association. Using direct mail and e-mail campaigns, the parents’ group and the Lowell Alumni Association are doing the bulk of the current fundraising.

King, a professional fundraiser and father of two Lowell students, donates his expertise. He said his group raised $450,000 in the 2009-10 school year and has given nearly $350,000 this school year.

Additionally, alumni have donated more than $200,000 this school year, according to Terence Abad, the alumni association’s executive director.

The donations have paid for basic day-to-day operations, covering nearly 5 percent of Lowell’s current $12 million operating budget to educate 2,550 students. (Other city schools have fundraisers, but not at this level.)

Of the money from the parents’ organization, $250,000 is a no-strings grant that can be used toward any school bills. Remaining money is earmarked for specific teacher and staff salaries.

“It’s definitely caused some debate,” Abad said, referring to alumni discussions. “How much should we get into the nuts and bolts of running the school? Isn’t that what our taxes are for?”

State budget shortfalls, passed on to local governments, have led to cuts in education across California. Even a top school like Lowell, which is ranked 28th nationally by U.S. News & World Report and 49th by Newsweek, has seen layoffs.

Lowell’s principal, Andrew Ishibashi, said class sizes that were once in the 20s were now in the 30s. “The city can’t help that the state is in this position,” he said.

The school has continued to achieve — it is second in the world for participation in advanced placement exams, Ishibashi said — but there were concerns that continuing cuts could jeopardize its success.

That level of achievement was on display last Friday at the busy offices of The Lowell, the school’s remarkably astute and well-written student newspaper. Jeffrey Wong said that being a reporter had been invaluable. “I’m able to express myself more clearly,” he said.

However, if not for the fundraising, journalism would have faced cuts, along with Latin, theater and other programs.

Lowell alumni have mixed reactions about the need for donations.

Jennifer Jajeh, an actress and playwright whose acclaimed solo show “I Heart Hamas: And Other Things I’m Afraid to Tell You” has toured nationally, said: “It wasn’t like I went to high school. It was like boot camp.”

Jajeh said Lowell’s academic rigor had prepared her for life, and she was glad to hear of the fundraising.

But Matthew Wong, an alumnus who is a Cisco marketing engineer, said, “It sends the wrong message.” Wong said it showed that society was not committed to financing public school excellence.

After all, even though Lowell produces successful graduates, many come from humble beginnings. This is still very much a public high school: nearly 40 percent of the current students are from lower-income households.

Yet they excel on academic exams. Achievement gaps that divide students by race and wealth elsewhere are negligible at Lowell.

That deserves an A.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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