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Two months after San Diego Unified’s most polarizing principal left her post at Lincoln High School, the school has found its new leader.

John Ross, who has served as interim principal since Esther Omogbehin moved on, has been tapped as permanent principal. The task will now be on Ross to lead the school away from its years of poor test schools and high staff turnover.

Ironically, Ross was one of those staff members who flew the roost. Ross had been a vice principal at Lincoln before he moved over to a similar role at Mira Mesa High earlier this year. Just months after he arrived at Mira Mesa, Omogbehin was placed on administrative leave, and Ross got the call from Superintendent Cindy Marten asking him to return.

Marten said she needed someone who could calm the waters at Lincoln, and Ross was willing to step up to the challenge.

Apparently, Lincoln agrees. Ross successfully finished out the 2014 school year without incident, and he was selected by a panel staff members, a parent and community members.

Marten said Ross is a humble, thoughtful leader who knows the school and knows the community. Ross grew up in San Diego and graduated from the School of Creative and Performing Arts high school. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.

It’s not clear why Ross initially left Lincoln, and he did not respond to requests for comment.

The decision will likely ruffle feathers among those who supported Omogbehin. Sally Smith, the district’s high-profile citizen watchdog, has criticized Ross’ role since his return, pointing out that he once caught flak for rough-housing with students.

Smith, who backed Omogbehin during her tenure, said she recognizes that Ross was play fighting, but that it doesn’t exercise good judgment and sends the wrong message to students. The district is aware of the incident.

More interesting is where Ross’ leadership fits within the context of Lincoln High School.

Since Lincoln opened the 2007 school year with a gleaming $129 million campus, it’s struggled to maintain its student body and raise test scores – perennially among the worst in the district.

In 2012, district leaders hoped Omogbehin’s hard-liner style would be just what the campus needed. Teachers and students disagreed. Since the beginning, her reign was mired in controversy.

Omogbehin brought the school certain improvements. Math scores, in particular, rose on her watch. But by April, the district had enough. She was placed on administrative leave, and quietly shrunk away.

Omogbehin has now been hired by the Houston Independent School District, which last year won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education under the helm of former San Diego Unified Superintendent Terry Grier.

Grier left San Diego in 2009 after an ongoing battle with the school board. At issue most often: the reforms he wanted to institute.

Omogbehin’s legacy generally fits one of two polarized narratives. She brought real reform to the school and demanded more from her teachers. Teachers, backed by the weight of the union, defended the status quo and finally chased her out.

Or: Omogbehin – motivated by good intentions or otherwise – lacked the tact necessary to be an effective leader. She picked fights unnecessarily, and made the school a hostile place to work. She placed too much emphasis on test scores, and showed little regard for her staff.

The second theory isn’t without supporting evidence. Before Omogbehin led Lincoln, she was a principal at Mann Middle School, and had one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the district.

The narratives converge as part of a battle that’s been waged for years in public schools across the county – a contest that’s often characterized as a fight between teachers unions and those who want to change the system.

In a sense, Lincoln has become a symbol for that battleground. It’s now Ross’ job to show the community that the school is more than that.

Mario Koran

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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