Donna Schmidt realized she was in an alternate universe.
Her daughter Rachel went to Lowell, the high-achievers’ San Francisco high school that’s now featured in a compelling PBS documentary (shown here). Everything was sort of backwards.
In other schools, kids might toss their books in a corner for the weekend and focus on leisure. Not Rachel or her classmates.
“Friday, when she gets home, she would start studying,” Schmidt told the Television Critics Association, in a press conference for “Try Harder!” (10 p.m. Monday, May 2, on PBS, under the “Independent Lens” banner). “That was just the weirdest thing …. So that’s (my) Friday, too.”
And it was the weekend for many students – even without parental pushing. “It’s peer pressure that really is super motivational,” said filmmaker Debbie Lum.
Or internal pressure. That’s how Ian Wang, one of the students featured in the film, feels. “Lowell was so difficult …. If I could go back, I would tell myself not to be so anxious.”
That’s not the prevailing view, though. Lowell students feel a need to get into one of a few schools – Stanford or Berkeley in their home state, maybe an Ivy League one on the other end of the country – or their life options would fade.
Schmidt, the finance director for a consulting company, has heard that directly. “My boss told me that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, because you don’t have an Ivy background, there’s a concrete wall.”
Others might say there are plenty of ways to have a good life, with or without a prestige degree. Wang graduated from Lowell in 2017 (when “Try Harder” was filmed) and then from Emory University. That’s in Atlanta, where he’s now an AmeriCorps teacher, working with kids who have none of the Lowell advantages.
“I am happier than ever,” he said, “because I know my work directly impacts these kids’ future in positive ways …. Yesterday, one of my kids got accepted into the University of Alabama on a pretty big scholarship. She was all happy. I was the one who got her to take her SAT’s and got her to do the prep. I am super happy to have done that.”
But “happy” isn’t a word that pops up often. Lowell is a public school that draws the most exacting students. They’ve included “Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, actor Benjamin Bratt, comedian Margarfet Cho and best-selling author Daniel Handler, better known as Lemony Snickety,” said Lois Vossen, the “Independent Lens” chief. Its grads also include CEO’s, a former Yale president and Nobel-winning physicist Eric Allin Cornell.
“He came back to visit about 20 years ago and spent a day in my classes,” said Richard Shapiro, who was a long-time Lowell teacher. Cornell told the class that when he got to Lowell “he found out that it was actually – and these were his words — ‘cool to study hard and to try to do as good as you can.’ And that was a new concept for him.”
It’s a concept that ripples through the school, Lum said. The kids who did best “were doing it regardless of what their parents had to say in the matter. They were doing that based on their own sense of their identity, which is largely coming from their peers.”
Her film didn’t intend to address another subject, which still emerges — the ongoing tug between test scores and diversity.
As a student, Wang said, “I thought: ‘If I get a certain score, I should be able to go to a certain place.’ It’s pretty simple.” Now that he’s teaching in other parts of the world, he isn’t sure.
Until recently, admission to Lowell was strictly based on test scores. The overwhelming majority of students and their parents have Asian roots; Donna Schmidt and her daughter, who are Black, were in a small minority. The film shows several times when students are warned: Some colleges, expecting great test scores from Asian students, will demand more from them.
Lowell took a big step in 2020 (after the film was made), eliminating admission tests and using a lottery. That same year, an elite Virginia high school also eliminated admission tests, after noting that 73 percent of its students were Asian and only 5 percent were Black or Hispanic. Recently (on April 25), the Supreme Court rejected a request for an emergency ruling blocking the change.
Wang said he can understand the trend. “The test score is a measure of privilege, more than anything. Those who can afford preparation do preparation; they get a higher score.”
Still, that doesn’t soothe the sting of a possible bias against diligent students like the ones in Lum’s film. “It’s definitely a very confusing thing for students and parents today,” she said.
Less complicated is the fact that these are smart, likable teens. Shaprio said we should “stop vilifying students who do extremely well and accusing them of overachieving, as if that were a crime.”
If it were a crime, the trying-hard Lowell kids would be serial felons.