The angry young Chinese Americans at the helm of the Lowell fight insist that they are not opposed to affirmative action and see no contradiction in their cause. The children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, they speak instead of dreams betrayed, of disillusionment with the notion that hard work could obliterate the barriers of skin color.
"I grew up knowing a lot of racism," said Lee Cheng, 23, a UC Berkeley law student and spokesman for the San Francisco chapter of the Chinese American Democratic Club, the group behind the legal battle.
"I was beaten up as a kid, referred to as a chink, a Chinaman. But in school I was taught that the laws will treat everyone the same, that discrimination was being eliminated.
"Then my friends and I applied to public high school. We discovered that if you are Chinese, you have to do better than anyone else."
Cheng attended Lowell, graduating in 1989. Linda Lee's 15-year-old son was not as lucky.
The prospective freshman, who asked not to be identified, applied last year, scoring 61 on the school's 69-point admission index. As a Chinese American, he needed 62 to get in. For whites and other Asians, the cutoff was 58, and for others the standard was even more lenient.
Her son's failure to gain admission, his mother said, stirred anger and self-hate.
"He said it is not fair," Lee recalled. "He said, 'Why a lower score for others? I have good grades, better than them.' He said, 'Why am I Chinese?' "
An immigrant who lives in the city's Mission district, Lee believes that the current system damages race relations. The solution, in her view, would be to have one admission standard and no limits on any group.
The district argues that the caps are fair and just. They "put some restriction on all races and ethnic groups in order to ensure that desegregation occurs," said Aubrey McCutcheon, a district lawyer.
The rules apply to all the schools, he stressed. "We don't single out one school because one race would like to go there more than others."
In response to the outcry, the district is examining alternatives, hoping to have new admission guidelines by the fall of 1996. One proposal would create two pools of applicants--one chosen strictly by grades and scores and one based on additional criteria, including ethnicity. Another proposal would create a pool of applicants who meet a uniform set of standards, with finalists selected by lottery.
Lee's son, who wound up at another alternative school, wanted to attend Lowell because, like many San Franciscans, he saw it as a pipeline to prestigious UC Berkeley. Lowell sends more graduates to the nine UC campuses than any high school in the country.
In a city of immigrants, it is viewed, simply, as a ticket to success.
Lowell has produced a governor (Edmund G. Brown Sr.), scientists and artists (naturalist Dian Fossey, sculptor Alexander Calder), Nobel laureates (physicist Albert Michelson, physiologist Joseph Erlanger) and a United States Supreme Court justice (Stephen G. Breyer).
Last year, it ranked eighth in the nation out of more than 10,000 high schools in the number of Advanced Placement tests administered, and almost nine of 10 students passed the rigorous exams. The curriculum is extensive--Korean and Philippine language courses were recently added. The library is linked to the Internet. And nearly half of the teaching staff have master's degrees or doctorates. It has been named a California Distinguished School by the state Department of Education four times in nine years.
Tucked away in the Sunset district, a middle-class enclave on the west side of town, the campus is atypical in other ways, too.
At almost any time of day, scores of youths line the corridor floors in the main classroom building, using their free period to pore over notes, read or study with friends.
While bells are a constant intrusion at most schools, here they are rung only at homeroom and to summon a custodian. Lowell students don't need help to remember when it's time for class.
"I always wanted to go here," said sophomore Kelli Thomas-Drake, 16. "It's like a private school setting. Kids know what to do and are mature about it. It's really the place to be academically."
Lowell's appeal is heightened by parents' perception that the quality of San Francisco schools is generally poor.
In 1978, the local NAACP sued the district, charging that its segregated schools provided black children in particular with an inferior education.
Five years later, the lawsuit ended in a consent decree signed by the district, the state Department of Education and the NAACP and approved by a federal judge.
The plan was more than a blueprint for busing, although busing is a major feature of district desegregation efforts. It took the unusual approach of calling for the overhaul of teaching and administrative staffs at schools with particularly dismal records.