Unlike every other school in San Diego, Lincoln High School has no neighborhood middle school that automatically feeds teens into the local high school.

That longstanding problem could loom even larger as San Diego Unified embarks on a new set of school reforms based around bringing neighborhood schools together.

The idea is that if kids struggle with writing in middle schools, teachers can turn to the elementary schools to figure out better ways to prepare them and build on what they’ve learned. Middle and high schools work together to smooth the transition, ensuring that lessons and methods match up.

But Lincoln has a muddle in the middle.

Roughly half of local students leave the neighborhood when middle school rolls around, taking buses north to other schools. What were once the neighborhood middle schools have converted into independent charter schools. Because charters are separate from the school district, their students don’t automatically feed into the local high schools — and two of the closest charters are now forming high schools of their own.

The result is a mishmash.

Freshmen came to Lincoln from four dozen different middle schools last year. That makes it extremely difficult for Lincoln to work with its feeders to smooth out problems. Lincoln teachers are unsure what their students learned in middle school and what they didn’t.

Precious Jackson-Hubbard, who teaches English, wishes she could work with middle schools to ensure that teens are used to dissecting novels, a skills they need for her class. But her students have been exposed to so many different curriculums that it is impossible to team up with their middle schools.

“Our kids come from so many middle schools it’s hard to know where to start,” said Ray Adair, math coordinator at Lincoln High. “It’s overwhelming.”

Beyond the reform push for schools to partner, the middle school gap has hurt Lincoln and the larger community in other ways. It pulls students away from southeastern San Diego and forces Lincoln to constantly recruit kids, instead of banking on the local middle school to send them.

“It makes no sense at all. We built a state-of-the-art high school right here in southeastern San Diego,” said Michael Brunker, executive director of the nearby Jackie Robinson Family YMCA. Yet because nobody automatically feeds into it, for some teens “it’s an afterthought and not their first choice.”

In most neighborhoods, schoolchildren follow a familiar pattern. A child at La Jolla Elementary usually goes to Muirlands Middle and then on to La Jolla High. That pattern allows schools to work together to ensure that children are prepared for each step along the way.

Schools can also make sure that the curriculum makes sense from one school to the next. Schools in Point Loma, for instance, made sure that when one elementary school started offering Mandarin, middle and high schools were ready to follow up with more.

“The middle school plays a critical role,” said Mike Price, the area superintendent who oversees schools in La Jolla and University City. “Without it, it’s hard to plan, and that can be devastating to high schools.”

Because southeastern middle schools like Gompers are now charters, separate from the school district, San Diego Unified assigns children from those areas to the next closest middle schools, Mann, Bell and Memorial Prep.

But those three schools are far enough from home that, for some families, it seems simpler to just put their kids on a bus to predominantly white neighborhoods and take advantage of a busing system meant to integrate schools racially.

Parents like Rebecca Hill are torn, unsure where to send her daughter when she graduates from Porter Elementary. There is no one obvious choice. “I don’t want her to go to just any school and get lost,” Hill said.

The diaspora of middle schoolers also means that Lincoln doesn’t always get them back. Many make friends in middle school and decide to stay for high school elsewhere. Some parents claim that successful students are actively recruited to other schools, especially if they are already being bused.

“People from the schools kept telling me, ‘Why don’t you send your son to La Jolla High School?’” said Yazmin Bozin Mendoza, whose son goes to Lincoln. “I get the feeling they’re expecting Lincoln to fail.”

The school district opened up a new magnet school next to Gompers, but its students come from all over the school district and don’t necessarily choose Lincoln. Another local elementary, Knox, expanded to include sixth, seventh and eighth grade. But it can only fit so many kids.

When Lincoln was asked to create an innovative plan to spend stimulus money, it dreamed up a feeder middle school. But those plans were ultimately shelved. More recently, the school district has floated the idea of converting part of nearby Porter into a middle school to help fill the gap. Some educators feel it is still too little, too late.

“All this stuff is piecemeal,” said Shirley Weber, a former school board member who heads the Africana Studies department at San Diego State University. “No one is focusing on how we ended up in this situation. The system has failed to adequately educate children of color.”

The problem existed long before the new reform push in San Diego Unified — and long before Lincoln was rebuilt. Gompers was once a neighborhood middle school that fed into Lincoln, but later became a magnet school that extended through high school, leaving few teens to go to Lincoln.

“We ended up getting kids that had been kicked out of every other school in the district,” said former principal Wendell Bass. Lincoln was treated like “the throwaway school.”

The plan was that when Lincoln got its makeover, Gompers would be pared back to a middle school to feed it. But then it became a charter, splitting from the school district. So did middle schools like Keiller, not far away, and O’Farrell, which had already become one much earlier. And Lincoln was again left without a feeder.

“It’s hard to have a good, strong cluster when the middle part is missing,” said school board member Shelia Jackson. “You have the head and feet — but the midsection is all gone.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

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