Thursday, Oct. 16, 2008 | In the dimly lit classroom a television newscast flickered before dozens of Lincoln High students and their teacher. They watched as the reporter explained that Lincoln’s test scores had failed to pass muster under No Child Left Behind, even though its new campus “cost a lot of money,” and that a memo from the superintendent called its scores “embarrassing.” A school board member said nothing had changed at Lincoln since it was demolished and rebuilt.

Under the gaze of a Che Guevara poster, teacher Eduardo Ochoa shut off the footage and a student posed a question: Isn’t it the school board’s fault because they lead the schools?

Ochoa gave no answer. Instead he posed more questions to the sophomores in his class: Why did the reporters choose Lincoln High School? Who were the people they interviewed? And what problems were left out of the newscast?

Such questions are part of a pioneering program at the reopened Lincoln High School that dissects prejudice, oppression and the history of activism. It teaches teens, many from neighborhoods troubled by poverty and gang violence, to understand and battle the institutional barriers to their own success. It is an unusual and sometimes controversial effort that steeps teens in ideas such as globalization and heterosexism that abound on college campuses but are less apparent at high schools.

“I can’t tell you the number of college students I’ve taught who have said, ‘Why didn’t I get this in high school?’” said Hugh Mehan, a sociology professor and director of the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego, which partners with Lincoln. “I would be hard pressed to name other programs like it.”

Like a growing number of high schools nationwide, Lincoln separates its 9th graders into a program meant to ease their transition from middle school. Like other high schools in San Diego, it is split into several smaller schools, each with its own focus.

But Lincoln goes a step further. Ninth graders attend one of the schools-within-a-school, the 9th Grade Center for Social Justice, where every student takes a social justice class. Themes of ending inequality are also woven into other classes. They analyze the messages in hip hop lyrics along with classical poetry; they talk about sociological studies that show that black children choose white dolls over black ones.

Scholars say a center entirely focused on social justice is relatively rare amid the testing pressures and penalties of No Child Left Behind. Teaching about oppression and disadvantage has sometimes worried educators who fear that students from historically marginalized groups will be discouraged instead of mobilized.

“In reality we’ve seen the absolute opposite,” said Anthony Collatos, an assistant professor of education at Malibu-based Pepperdine University, who championed a similar program called the Futures Project in the Los Angeles area. “Too often in the past we have essentially blamed students and their families for those inequities.”

“They realize it’s not their fault,” he added.

Ninth graders at Lincoln take a yearlong course that traverses such subjects as identity politics, the differences between political parties, and media critique. They keep journals, learn new vocabulary and do 20 hours of community service that ties back to academic goals and topics they studied in class. Frequently they discuss the events in their community — a student being stabbed, the budget shortfall that menaced their youngest and newest teachers with pink slips, even the evening newscast that announced their test scores.

In English classes the students have penned letters to elected officials to protest budget cuts for California schools. In their social justice class they deconstructed the messages in popular music, and learned the difference between “vertical violence” exerted by the powerful against the powerless, often through structures and institutions, and “horizontal violence” visited from one disenfranchised group on another, often through interpersonal bickering.

When one student in Ochoa’s class complains that the reporters who shone an unflattering spotlight on Lincoln should have looked at Morse High too, another school in a disadvantaged neighborhood, Ochoa reminded him to focus on the story and not attack another school.

“Remember the two types of violence?” he said.

Ninth graders first learn about respectful communication and explore how they perceive themselves. For many it is a revealing exercise. Teacher Larry Thurman leads one class where students identify the things that nurture them, the things that people have said to hurt them, and the things they can do to protect themselves against that hurt, pasting their answers onto a sheet of construction paper to save. Later in the year they learn about historical instances of protest and dissent.

Talking about discrimination and injustice is not academic for Lincoln students, most of whom are from historically disadvantaged groups. Fifty-two percent of its students are Latino and nearly 40 percent are Black. More than a quarter are still learning English. Gang violence is palpable in their lives: Teachers worry that only a month into the school year, students are already wearing T-shirts to commemorate friends who were killed nearby.

“It’s rare for them to get to talk about issues that directly affect them,” said Larry Thurman, who teaches an Introduction to Social Justice class. “You don’t have the same issues here as in Del Mar.”

Supporters believe that teaching students about social justice will broaden their thinking about their own potential, problems in their communities, and inspire them to view their own education as a quest for justice. It is too soon to tell whether the program has reached its goals of keeping students engaged and excited about school, cutting suspensions or boosting scores on history tests. Lincoln High has only been open for a year, a fact that Executive Principal Mel Collins has repeated when questioned about the disappointing scores that Lincoln netted its first year.

But the social justice program has already stoked excitement among educators and won kudos from kids. And it has made Lincoln an epicenter of student and faculty protest. Rallies and petitions erupt from Lincoln students who want to eliminate school rifle ranges and from teachers who are infuriated by budget cuts.

“That is really new and innovative,” said Makeba Jones, an associate project scientist in Mehan’s center who is studying the school. “Lincoln is combining ideas about what’s developmentally appropriate for freshmen with this incredibly exciting and engaging concept around social justice.”

Jones’ surveys of Lincoln High students found that 76 percent of students in its 9th Grade Center for Social Justice agreed that their classes taught them about the theme, a higher percentage than in any of the themed schools that Lincoln 9th graders choose to attend after the Center. Vice Principal Ana Galindo Shapiro, who oversees the 9th grade program, said she had to shoo last year’s graduates away from the center this year at lunchtime: Teens didn’t want to leave.

“Teachers were so touched by that,” Shapiro said. “We had to tell them, go spread your wings and be 10th graders!”

Social justice is an especially poignant focus for newcomers to Lincoln, a school that is heavy with historical symbolism and ongoing frustrations. Demolished under Superintendent Alan Bersin, it was meant to rise like a phoenix from its ashes last year, revitalizing the southeastern corner of San Diego Unified with a new campus off Imperial Avenue, an enviable grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the schools-within-a-school model that was in vogue across the school district and the country.

But its splashy reopening was deflated by a gross miscalculation of enrollment that left classrooms crowded and lab equipment in short supply. Towering hopes that student achievement at Lincoln would skyrocket instantly have given way to realism as the school has shrugged off its birthing pains and pushes forward through the persistent problems of neighborhood violence and the under-preparation of the freshmen walking through its doors.

The stakes are high for the teens who speak up in Ochoa’s class. It is not simply about one school: for many Lincoln represents the hopes of their neighborhoods, their families, even their cultures. The teens complain that Lincoln is being attacked. That it was expected to fail.

“Lincoln is glorified for the sports and the marching band,” said Sakeenah Shabazz, a sophomore at Lincoln High School. “When we organize we don’t get media attention.”

Social justice education is somewhat different than the approach taken by many of the charter middle schools that feed into Lincoln. The schools have used different strategies to a common end: Eliminating the achievement gap between students of different races and means. Gompers Charter Middle School, for instance, touts being a good citizen and overcoming the staggering dropout rates among Latino and African-American youth, said Chief of Staff Allison Kenda, but social justice has not been a specific focus.

Others such as Keiller Leadership Academy counter neighborhood violence and disadvantage by mandating uniforms to eliminate gang colors and encouraging children to value scholarship and hard work. Talking overtly and at length about discrimination and historical injustice, as Lincoln has done, is a different tack.

“The closest thing we had was Black History Month once a year,” said Shabazz, who previously attended Gompers. “Here I learned to see things through a different lens. You decolonize yourself from the mindset you developed since you’re young.”

Community members have backed the Lincoln social justice classes and were the first to propose the activist theme when Lincoln was still being planned. But social justice classes are controversial nationwide, said Collatos, who is often questioned about “creating subversives” by teaching about inequality. Classes at Lincoln plunge into sensitive political issues and hot-button topics such as racism, which surfaced quickly in the class discussion of the newscast about Lincoln test scores.

One student complained that the reporters chose to highlight Lincoln because of the reputation of its ethnic groups. Another lamented that the news cameras settled on a beloved black teacher “to bring her down because she’s helped the community so much.”

Ochoa listened, nodded, and asked the students again, “What are they trying to say?”

The challenge to traditional ideas runs even deeper than learning about dissent, Collatos said. Social justice education counters what some scholars call “the myth of meritocracy,” that every student will and can achieve if they and their teachers simply try. Meritocracy is the bedrock idea of many U.S. history textbooks and arguably to No Child Left Behind itself, which raises the bar annually for test scores at schools. Through their classes in social justice, some Lincoln students have become skeptical of whether standardized testing, the usual measure of modern schools, is worthwhile.

“The challenge is, how can we both be critical of an educational system that we are also asking children to navigate and be successful in?” Collatos said.

Shabazz was inspired by her social justice classes to start organizing her classmates for change. Even her musical tastes have changed after she started listening and thinking about the lyrics in her favorite songs. Last year she helped protest sweeping budget cuts aimed at California schools; this year she posed a question to the school board candidates at a community forum. Questions now spring readily to her lips.

“We get into these debates about telling a kid to do something, and the kids say, ‘Why?’” said Precious Jackson, an English teacher who once attended and now works at Lincoln. “And a lot of adults would automatically say, ‘Because I said so.’ As social justice teachers we see it a little bit differently. We teach them to challenge it. We feel they deserve to know.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with 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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