Emil Guillermo: Lowell High students "Try Harder," but SF educators need to do better than eliminate merit

Image for Emil Guillermo: Lowell High students "Try Harder," but SF educators need to do better than eliminate merit

Try Harder” is the name of a fascinating film by filmmaker Debbie Lum about five students at an elite public high school as they try to get into the elite college of their choice.

We aren’t quite at documenting the ravages of competitive nursery school–but we are close.

Three of the students are Asian, of different stripes. Sophia is a steadfast grinder. Newspaper Editor. Student leader. Works part-time. Excels. There’s Ian, the Eagle Scout with a wry sense of humor. But my favorite is Alvan, the son of immigrant Chinese parents, who is as protective of them as they are of him. He also dabs like a Dragon Ball Z/rapper and can be seen with Batman ears or a Daniel Boone-type hat. He’s all that: smart enough for advanced physics and sensitive enough to tell his “Tiger Mom” not to offer a college interviewer a red envelope.

Rounding out the starting five is Rachael, an Obamaesque-half-Caucasian, but with an African American single mom who may be more “Tiger Mom” than the Asians. And then there’s the white male of non-privilege, Shea, child of divorce. His mom lives in another county, so he lives with his father, who battles addictions and is never around. Shea essentially lives alone to have the address that enables him to go to Lowell High School, the premier public school in San Francisco.

That’s your starting five. The Asian American top 5 violinist ever in the history of the school, who has straight A’s and wants to go to Harvard and Stanford, barely gets a mention.

But all of them want to go to Harvard and Stanford. And that’s the hook of “Try Harder.”

You care for them.

What these kids go through to succeed and achieve will break your heart and make you say these kids are smart and fine and worthy, right now.

It’s the educational system that needs to try harder and not smash these “babies” as they reach for the stars.

Debbie Lum tells me she’s not a political or activist filmmaker. She’s a “storyteller.” And she sees her role to expose the human, psychological drama of a Lowell college admission year.

The film was shot before the nonsense of the Harvard affirmative action case. That’s the case where aggrieved whites have used Asian Americans as human shields to divide the community. Unfortunately, it’s working.

In my conversation with Lum, I express how I wanted her to go there. But what she does is enough. There’s no division by race in her perspective. I thought I’d be seeing an Asian American film, but there’s a basic humanity and equality that goes beyond that political b.s. that we seem to be mired in always, especially on this topic.

What we see in the film is these young, pimply innocent kids grow up before our eyes and react to the world that we’ve created for them.

“Try Harder” is not what I’d say to them, if they do or don’t get in. (No spoilers here). But it’s what I’d say to the rest of us, the policy makers, the bureaucrats, the educators. And even the media types like me.

For example, the current attack on Lowell is that it’s too elite. That admissions test and grades are unfair and shut out minorities.

It doesn’t shut out Asian American minorities, and Lowell is now around 50 percent Asian.

But is that fair?

The school board wants to eliminate merit and make Lowell a “regular” school. What good does that do for anyone? Essentially, it wants to throw away what is considered the crown jewel of public education in California, and kill what makes Lowell, Lowell.

It’s the dumb down of all dumb downs. Of course, white conservatives love the division it creates. And many Asians buy into this, forgetting that we are part of the great coalition that brings about equity in public education. The civil rights movement includes us. Don’t be fooled. We have benefited. And our fair share isn’t 51 percent.

Let me first reveal my bias. I graduated from Lowell High. Many moons ago. Full. Not half. And I was one of five in my class to get into Harvard.

I feel for these kids. When I applied, the Harvard acceptance rate was 1 in 10. Now it’s a fraction of that, with more kids who want to apply. Applying to Harvard is like passing a kidney stone. And that damn common app makes it all a game. Apply to one elite school? Why not 20?

I have to admit, when I had to do a college app by hand, I still applied to at least eight schools. But when I got that big fat letter from Harvard, I just stopped caring about any place else.

So I understand these kids. You want a Louis Vuitton bag; you should have one. And not a knockoff that says LV but is a bag from UC Riverside.

I also know that what we have here ,with so many more students applying for so few positions, is not an education problem or an excellence problem. We have a resource problem.

And we have a system that is more based on luck than pure merit.

You get that when you see Rachael and her mom pull out another application of sorts— a scratcher for the California Lottery. They don’t win. But that’s pure luck. It’s the reason you still have to get A’s.

When I talked with Lum, I was all dead set on my reservations with the movie.

But once she told me she had no political bias, I was willing to accept her film for what it did do. It showed me that the kids aren’t the problem. It’s the system that needs to do more than “try harder.” It needs to “do better.” Serve the smart kids as well as the general public. It’s a public school.

Doing better means keeping Lowell as Lowell, but doing more at K-8 levels to assure that students of all backgrounds are prepared for the rigors of Lowell. It means keeping the excellence at Lowell because smart kids in Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities—and that includes Asians— should have access to the best in public education.

In my example, my immigrant parents couldn’t afford sending me to a $30,000 a year private school. We needed to rely on the best public school academic magnets like Lowell.

The neighborhood school was cool. But it wouldn’t have been the same. Eliminating Lowell means kids from poor backgrounds would not have had the chance to compete with the best students, have the best teachers, and hence the best experience.

But as of this week, the school board wants to end merit-based admissions and go with a lottery. A lottery?

The board doesn’t even talk about fixing problems with education. It gets lazy and suggests a lottery. Luck. The illusion of fairness that obscures the real high odds.

Gutting Lowell doesn’t equalize anything. It eliminates excellence for all and normalizes a sense of mediocrity in the best public education can offer.

Educators, bureaucrats, policy makers really need to do better.

I talked with Debbie Lum in my podcast “Emil Amok’s Takeout.” Listen here.

I’ll also talk more about this on my livestreamed show on Facebook, Facebook Watch; YouTube; and Twitter.

The film has a limited run that ends on Dec. 9 in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. For more showings, go to

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

Read Emil's full bio →