When Cindy Marten looks at the dust-up at Lincoln High, she said she doesn’t just see anger over a principal’s leadership style or teachers’ effectiveness.

The tensions at Lincoln — which have escalated following years of failing test scores and a mass student exodus — are bigger and deeper than both of those pressure points.

“What’s happening at Lincoln is at the heart of the struggle in America,” she said. “When we get Lincoln right, we get America right.”

At the core of the controversy, she said, is a question about how to make a high school work in a large urban district, one that struggles with the same issues facing cities across the nation: generational poverty, racial disparities and budget shortfalls.

In a lengthy interview with Voice of San Diego, Marten said she doesn’t care for the word “turnaround,” or the idea that a single person can save a district or school.

Like it or not, that’s exactly what people are hoping she can do with a school like Lincoln.

Marten evangelically believes in the need for a “shared-conversation,” in which the community airs its concerns, defines its goals and together creates a plan.

Yes, Marten said, a conversation is happening at Lincoln, but not the right kind.

“I’m tired of the polarized rhetoric that pits teachers against administration,” she said. “I’m tired of the conversation about good teachers and bad teachers. None of this is helping.”

The Lincoln Monologues

When Lincoln started the 2007 academic year with a new, $129 million campus, it opened with four separate academies: a center for social justice, arts, science and engineering and public safety.

Test scores — to the degree to which they can — tell the story of a school that has sputtered academically since it opened.  In 2012, Lincoln ranked last in the district in its Academic Performance Index, a number derived from statewide assessment scores.

Stacked up against high schools statewide, Lincoln ranks well below average.

Ray Adair, a former math teacher who organized and administered the California Standards Test (CST) during his tenure at Lincoln, attributes the low test scores to the fact the school had a “shotgun start,” meaning that when it opened, it took in kids from over 70 schools to fill all four grades at once.

Most new charter schools, he said, begin with a 9th grade class and grow their student bodies year by year.

Adair said he wasn’t thrilled by a recent Voice of San Diego story that cited a 300 percent proficiency gain in Lincoln’s CST math scores over the past year.

Math proficiency scores, he said, are still very low — around 15 percent. “When I was there, we had a 300 percent increase, too. But we didn’t go around bragging about it,” he said.

Almost 30 percent of Lincoln’s student body has left since 2009, and so has much of its staff. Adair said a large number of teachers left after a controversial principal, Esther Omogbehin, took over in early 2012.

Under Omogbehin, the school restructured its campus, moving from four academic centers into a single-functioning unit. And district-wide curriculum changes have further stoked the fire.

This year, Lincoln began shifting to an A-G curriculum, meaning students will be required to pass classes that are aligned with University of California admission standards.

To that end, classes at Lincoln that didn’t jive with the A-G curriculum have been cut, and many of their teachers have been excessed or have relocated.

Teachers have accused Omogbehin of bullying staff who grieved her leadership, and transferring teachers based on her personal preferences.

The principal declined to speak with Voice of San Diego, but she told 10 News in 2012 that the animosity is rooted in racial tensions that predate her arrival.

Dan Camacho, a former teacher at Lincoln, has been one of many loud voices at school board meetings for the past several weeks.

Camacho has repeatedly asked the board to conduct a “social audit” that would determine whether school administration is following the district’s ethics code.

Dozens of Lincoln students and staff have appeared at school board meetings, dressed in red shirts, demanding accountability and transparency from the administration. What, exactly, meeting those demands would look like remains unclear, but away from the public podium, teachers agree on this: Omogbehin needs to leave.

This isn’t the first turbulence Omogbehin has experienced at Lincoln. In 2012, shortly after she became principal, a student accused the principal of making physical threats against her. A school district investigation found no wrongdoing, but Omogbehin told 10 News that the damage was done.

Sally Smith, who has served on the school governance board at Lincoln, has opposed teachers and defended Omogbehin in school board meetings and after-school protests.

To Smith, the issue comes down to “bad teachers who don’t want to be held accountable.”

Marten’s Take

As superintendent, it’s Marten’s job to moderate the conversation that can transform the vitriolic bickering taking place at Lincoln into a constructive dialogue.

Part of that, she said, means not taking a side.

“I don’t think either side is right or wrong. Each point of view points to a bigger debate about what people are seeking in school,” Marten said.

Marten said there are opportunities to learn from both sides.

“You talk to teachers, you hear, ‘We need to be nurturing, we love our school and our kids, we need to build relationships, why don’t you let us do it?’ You talk to the other side, they want educated children and they want accountability,” she said. “What we’re talking about here is how to best educate our children in the community, and I believe we can achieve what both sides want. In the end, they all care about students.”

So what’s Marten going to do about the situation at Lincoln?

“I’m already doing it,” she said.

Mediations are under way, Marten said, and there’s been progress. She’s been holding town hall meetings, listening, bringing in district relations personnel to work with the staff at Lincoln.

“At the end of the day, we need to figure this out,” she said. “The students are counting on us to get this right.”

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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