Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2007 | When the rebuilt Lincoln High School opened this fall, teens clamored to get in. Four hundred extra students turned up unexpected, hoping for spots in their neighborhood school. For southeast San Diegans tired of watching their kids board school buses, shuttled to someone else’s high school, it looked like a shot at success, located right in the neighborhood. That was the promise of the new Lincoln High School.

It was a promise hundreds of students responded to — hundreds more than San Diego Unified School District had planned for. And it was a promise the school didn’t want to deny.

Small Schools, High Hopes

  • The Issue: Residents in southeast San Diego have high hopes for Lincoln High School, which reopened this fall after a three-year closure, boasting San Diego Unified’s most expensive campus. But the school now faces the start-up challenges of overcrowding and missing supplies, and longer-term worries about sustainable funding.
  • What It Means: For the first time in years, thousands of teens in southeast San Diego are opting for their neighborhood school, excited by the promise of the rebuilt Lincoln. That interest surprised demographers, who didn’t expect so many students to enroll. The question is whether Lincoln will live up to the hype.
  • The Bigger Picture: Lincoln is a test: Will the big investment in beautiful small schools and well-trained staff pay off in brighter futures for southeast San Diego teens? If it works, the model is likely to spread.

“They had no idea that so many kids were interested,” said Betty Brown, director of the Center for Parent Involvement in Education, which trains parents about their children’s rights. “Those kids were scattered throughout the district, and some of them didn’t fare well in those schools. Parents are hoping Lincoln will be an educational haven for their kids.”

So Lincoln opened its doors this fall, enrolled as many students as it could fit, and scrambled to make it work. Class sizes have bloated to 40-plus students, frustrated teachers and parents say. It’s not their only frustration: Beakers and microscopes are absent from Lincoln labs. Ceramics classes didn’t have clay until November.

And teachers fret that in bigger classes, bad behavior is tougher to quash. A union survey of more than 25 Lincoln teachers found that class size, lack of supplies and misbehavior topped their concerns. Those issues have been more marked at Lincoln than at similar high schools, union organizers say.

As one principal strolled across Lincoln’s $129 million campus, a plush array of green stucco buildings, he heard a scattering of those complaints. Richard Vernon Moore, principal of two Lincoln schools, stopped into Sharletta Richardson’s music class briefly to find her students splayed on the carpet next to their keyboards, laboring quietly over worksheets. R&B music filled the room.

“If you need to see why I need tables …” Richardson said to Moore, gesturing to the students at work on the floor. “But aren’t they doing beautifully?”

Lincoln closed in 2003 after a storied half-century in southeast San Diego, was demolished and then rebuilt as four small schools on a single sprawling campus: the 9th Grade Center for Social Justice, the Center for the Arts, the Center for Public Safety and the Center for Science and Engineering. All students go to the 9th Grade Center, then select which school they’ll attend for the next three years. The schools share resources and a common executive principal, but operate as separate, smaller schools. Small schools are in vogue with funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which donated millions to train Lincoln teachers.

Moore said his teachers are “excellent,” but they’re struggling with swollen classes and missing supplies. It’s a strange paradox on San Diego Unified’s most expensive campus: a dream school outfitted with scores of immaculate white iMacs, a sparkling fitness center, laptop computers for every teacher and document cameras that project worksheets onto the wall for students to read. It’s a campus that recently won honors from the Associated General Contractor’s San Diego chapter. Lincoln partners with big-name San Diego universities. Its faculty includes several county teachers of the year.

Yet principals worry that long-term needs at Lincoln — counseling for at-risk students, steady funding after grants disappear — haven’t been addressed yet. And short-term frustrations linked to the school’s start-up — overcrowding and undersupply — have dented teacher morale.

“It shouldn’t be like this,” Moore said. “The honeymoon period is wearing off very quickly.”

Student Numbers Exceeded Expectations

As Lincoln High was erected off Imperial Avenue, San Diego Unified staff estimated how many students it would serve. Roughly 5,000 teens live in the neighborhoods surrounding Lincoln, but the school was built for a maximum of 2,400 students, and staffed for only 1,850.

That’s not uncommon in central and southeast San Diego, where half of area teens opt for magnets, charter schools or are bussed to schools elsewhere when neighborhood schools fail under No Child Left Behind. Only 2,300 students attend downtown’s San Diego High School, said Roy MacPhail, director of Instructional Facilities Planning, though about 5,000 students live in that area.

To put every student in the Morse, Lincoln and San Diego High School areas into a neighborhood school, “you’d have to build three or four more high schools, just in this area,” said H.J. Green, executive director of the Office of Secondary School Innovation. “And where would you build them?”

After years of being bussed to other schools, high school juniors and seniors weren’t expected to return to Lincoln. Demographers also underestimated the interest among freshmen. Earlier in the year, Lincoln staff was actively recruiting students, fearful of a shortfall on opening day. Instead, parents flocked to the school. To school trustee Shelia Jackson, whose area includes Lincoln, the overflowing interest is a boon to the district.

“You have a public school with a waiting list with the ninth grade,” Jackson said. “It’s a really, really good feeling.”

Now, the school has enrolled 2,200 students from 77 different schools, and its ninth grade is bursting at the seams. Two months into the school year, Principal Mel Collins is short six teachers. Parents such as Gloria Cooper, a member of the faith-based San Diego Organizing Project, have voiced their worries to Jackson. Next year, Green said Lincoln will enroll neighborhood students by lottery.

“We overenrolled (ninth grade) by 50, expecting some drop-off. There hasn’t been,” said Collins, executive principal of all four Lincoln schools. Classes of 35 students have inflated to 45 students; P.E. classes are as large as 70 students, he said. “It’s logistically a nightmare, making sure every kid is accommodated and supports are in place. It’s like a juggling act. And time is passing.”

Schools have a tendency to round down, not up, when estimating enrollment, MacPhail said. Enrollment translates into teachers, textbooks, and district dollars, but if schools overestimate, they can get stung.

“I always understaffed, so I never had to declare teachers in excess,” said Barbara Brooks, former principal of Scripps Ranch High School, which opened for the first time in 1993. “I’d rather do that than have too many teachers and then have to get rid of them, or pay for them.”

Brooks didn’t encounter the overcrowding Collins has faced — but when Scripps Ranch opened, Brooks had advantages that Collins didn’t. While Collins and district demographers had to guess how many students would choose Lincoln over the multitude of other schools they were attending, Brooks knew exactly which school her students were coming from — Mira Mesa High — and could canvas Mira Mesa and the middle schools to estimate her enrollment.

But understaffing has put the squeeze on Collins, who is struggling to hire teachers long after most have settled in other San Diego classrooms for the year. Substitute teachers are covering the gaps as Collins and his staff interview teachers. The money is there, said Collins, but the bodies aren’t.

“Our teachers have been very understanding, knowing this is a new school, and things aren’t going to be perfect when it starts up,” said Craig Leedham, a field organizer with the San Diego Education Association, which represents San Diego Unified teachers. “But still, people are upset. You get up into classes of 40, in any urban school, and you’ll have a hard time teaching the students.”

Long-Term Planning Needed to Sustain ‘The Energy’

On a Friday afternoon, Collins railed at a 14-year-old boy just ejected from his classroom for using derogatory language toward girls. It wasn’t the first time. Two years into high school, the teen had yet to earn a single credit, but amassed a thick stack of referrals. Behind a closed door, Collins berated the boy, yelling, “I don’t have time for this!”

“If I have one [student like this], I probably have close to 100,” Collins said, stepping out of the room. “What do we need to do with the many [troubled students] we have on campus? When you can’t reach him, with 40 kids in a class, it’s frustrating. … I have no immediate resources for a student like him.”

Minutes later, another principal stops in to debrief with Collins after a Lincoln sophomore threatened to kill himself with a pair of scissors. It took a half-hour to disarm the boy, who pressed the open blade against his arm while his peers evacuated to another classroom, said Ana Maria Alvarez, principal of both the Center for Public Safety and the Center for Science and Engineering. Alvarez is relieved, but exhausted.

“It’s not a typical incident,” she said.

“But it’s one that goes on daily, in some form,” Collins replied.

Violence isn’t foreign to urban high schools, nor to the teachers who staff Lincoln. But Lincoln teachers said they lack resources to punish misbehavior, such as facilities for in-school suspension, or regular tardy sweeps, which round up kids found loitering on campus during class. Collins worries that the school’s planners underestimated the needs of at-risk kids.

“We didn’t know the depth and breadth of what it would entail,” he said. “We need more mental health services. Therapy for a kid takes months.”

Those needs haven’t been covered by the staggering investment in Lincoln, which boasts the district’s most expensive facility and a $7 million chunk of funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, earmarked for staff training and curriculum. Moore is anxious to find more ongoing funds, preparing for the day the Gates grant dries up. Inside a band room, he pointed out a gleaming $7,000 set of steel drums (a bargain, he added — the drums usually sell for $21,000) then confessed he wasn’t sure how he’d pay for them.

“That energy is dissipating,” Moore said, referring to the Gates grant and other one-time funds, and the fanfare that accompanied the school’s re-opening. “It’s like the energy you get from sugar. Now we have to do some real work.”

As Collins finishes interviewing prospective teachers, he’s optimistic that the overcrowding at Lincoln will ease. New supplies — musical instruments, lab equipment, and even copying paper — will be arriving soon. But larger issues loom for the school, now charged with sky-high expectations and promises made to a community that has too often seen them broken.

“Furniture and equipment and beautiful walls don’t teach,” said Wendell Bass, former principal of Lincoln High School, who lauded the school’s transformation. “It has the potential to assist with some phenomenal teaching. But it’s still about the person in front of the class, their skills and their love of children.”

Friday, Moore stopped into a Lincoln dance class, and grinned. Thumping music echoed through the dance studio as Donald Robinson shimmied across the floor, thrusting his hips in a Shakira-style motion. Teens hooted and giggled, trying to mimic the move. “Hips! Hips!” Robinson shouted, clapping to the beat. On the opposite wall, “Objective: Attainment” was scribbled on a dry-erase board, a gesture to Lincoln’s rule that teachers post the standard they’re teaching to, and why. Moore just smiled.

“This is the energy,” he said. “This is what it’s all about.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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