Tuesday, May 22, 2007 | The San Diego-Coronado Bridge, downtown skyline and vast Pacific Ocean form a panoramic view as I stand in the football stadium of a new San Diego high school campus.

What an inviting setting. Wondering what San Diego campus offers such a beautiful view? It’s the new Lincoln High, a rebuilt school that opens in the fall after the deteriorating inner-city campus was bulldozed three years ago.

A school needs to be a second home for kids, and the new Lincoln has been reincarnated as a suburban-like campus plopped down in the middle of Southeast San Diego’s Lincoln Park.

The buildings are painted in optimistic shades of green and white, Lincoln’s school colors. Palm trees line the central plaza with a village concept. The rounded roofs of the four main classrooms, which can be spotted from the freeway, artistically fan out over the walls.

Joe Martinez, the architect from San Diego’s Martinez and Cutri Corporation, is a Lincoln alumnus. Martinez led workshops with former Lincoln principal Wendell Bass through the Lincoln-Gompers Redevelopment Committee to seek input from the community.

“What I’ve told people involved in the planning is, take away the excuses for not teaching children,” Bass said. “The students and teachers now have everything they could have dreamed of. If the students don’t achieve, we know the reason.”

What I like about the new Lincoln is recognition that there is more to a successful school than student achievement. A total school approach includes athletics and extra-curricular activities.

Sports Illustrated, in a recent lengthy story examining the value of high school athletics in education, ranked Long Beach Poly as the No. 1 high school sports program in America. The ranking was based on athletic tradition, the overall athletic program and emphasis on academics.

The old Lincoln was a school with an athletic tradition as rich as any in the nation. Lincoln’s 24 NFL alumni, which include Marcus Allen and Terrell Davis, ranks second in the nation only to Poly. But Poly can’t boast of a Heisman Trophy winner (Allen) and two of only 10 NFL players named an NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP (Allen and Davis).

Lincoln’s new principal, Mel Collins, comes to Lincoln with a Long Beach Poly background. Bass has been working in the district office on projects to improve campuses through funding from Prop. MM.

“Sports create school spirit,” Bass said. “A strong football program sends spirit throughout the campus. It permeates good feelings on campus. Kids have something to rally around.”

Enlightened educators know that schools with strong athletic programs have fewer campus discipline problems. And the school year starts in the fall with the football team setting the tone.

But the San Diego Unified School District squandered Lincoln’s rich athletic tradition by not providing a learning environment and maintaining the campus.

In the 1990s up until Lincoln closed, the district used Lincoln as a dumping ground for problem students throughout the district. At the same time, the district promoted busing out of Lincoln to attend University City, Mission Bay, Madison and other schools north of I-8.

There were still exceptional athletes at Lincoln, sure, such as Derrick Goodwin, a West Point graduate and star on the Army football team, and Dwayne Wright, fourth-round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills and Fresno State graduate who hopes to become Lincoln’s 25th NFL player in 2007.

But in Bass’ final years at Lincoln, he said some years he had more teaching positions than applicants. The new Lincoln is interviewing and turning away applicants for teaching positions.

A new band director working out of comfortable performing arts center with ample space for band and choir rooms has been hired.

Bass took me through the performing arts center with a 790-seat auditorium. The performing arts center and adjoining administration building tower over Imperial Ave., where new homes have been built in recent years.

“This community needed a performing arts center for events and concerts,” Bass said. “There is no nicer performing arts center south of I-8.”

He also takes me through the new library.

“It has more square footage than the old gym,” Bass says. “The library and classrooms have the latest technology.”

The old gym, with its redwood ceiling, is the only building that wasn’t knocked down. It stands next to the gleaming 2,500-seat new gym.

The new 4,000-seat lighted football and track stadium, with all-weather surfaces and brightly painted Lincoln Hornet logos, sits on ground that was cleared when old homes next to campus were torn down.

Ron Hamamoto, one of San Diego’s finest football coaches the past two decades at Rancho Bernardo and University, has been hired to take the reigns of the Hornets’ proud football tradition.

San Diego Unified may have finally gotten it right. The district has built a campus learning environment worthy of the Hornets’ proud past. Instead of busing kids out, it is bringing a suburban setting to an urban school.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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