Since it opened in 2007, Lincoln High School has been sprinting to catch up with the promises of what it could become. Four superintendents and three principals later, it’s yet to deliver.

Things worked against the school from the start. Lincoln closed in 2003 to rebuild its campus. When it reopened the 2007 school year with a $129 million facility, the community applauded – but it struggled to rebuild enrollment.

Early on, Lincoln started with four separate academies that worked under one masthead. When students weren’t making progress quickly enough, a new principal brought the schools back together.

Then this year, it created a new plan to offer qualified students a chance to earn college credits. The rest of the high school will be set up as a so-called STEAM program that will emphasize science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

From a seven-year lens, what emerges is an attempt to save the school by offering big solutions. And with each solution, comes a ticking clock: How long should we give this remedy time to work before we try another approach?

When Superintendent Cindy Marten told me last year, “when we get Lincoln right, we get America right,” it wasn’t just about the urban school’s problems – it was about building lasting change instead of hoping for a Superman fix.

Our eyes stay fixed on the school, hoping for a breakthrough, but enthralled by the missteps. In fact, sometimes we get so caught up in watching the drama that we miss the underlying story: What’s it like to teach, to be a principal, student or parent in the Lincoln community?

Kiki Ochoa, who teaches economics and government at Lincoln, shared his perspective with me this week.

For about a year, I’ve gotten emails about Ochoa from a couple of community members, including Sally Smith, who used to serve on the school site council and staunchly supported Lincoln’s former principal. Ochoa is “indoctrinating students with his political views,” one email said. He’s asking students to question white privilege, which has no place on a high school campus, Smith said.

To be sure, Ochoa is political: posters of Che Guevara, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. hang on his classroom walls. Of course, you could also argue teaching a class in American government is, by nature, political.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Ochoa sees it as part of his role to encourage students to question what they read in history books: “It’s just problem posing. You don’t have to impose your views on anybody. All you have to do is ask questions,” he said.

Unlike the change that’s been expected out of Lincoln, it’s a slower, more substantive transformation that Ochoa’s been after. One student at a time. Below is part of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

First, tell me a little bit about these Che Guevara posters. My high school government teacher didn’t have posters like this.

One time a substitute teacher (left me a note that) said: ‘How could you have a poster of Martin Luther King next to a picture of Malcolm X? They’re complete contradictions to one another. ‘

And that’s what their note was. Not that ‘your kids are extraordinary, ‘ or that ‘I had a great day. ‘ That was it. That was the only thing.

For me anybody on my wall took risks and told the truth. And some of them were peaceful. Nonviolent. And some of the people, you know like Emiliano Zapata, he decided to take up arms during the Mexican Revolution. And of course Che.

It’s interesting because George Washington is never viewed in that sense. George Washington was willing to put a bullet in somebody’s head in order to gain independence for what he felt was extremely important and urgent in his time. He was a violent revolutionary.

To me what Malcolm X represents is resistance and liberation for African-American communities during the ’60s. That’s what I take from it. And from Che, a vision of a world without borders. He has flaws. Everybody on this wall has flaws. George Washington had flaws. Some people get fixated on what’s negative.

Everything that’s promoted in this classroom is love, justice, treating each other with dignity and respect.

Do you ever take a look at Lincoln through a social justice lens?

Oh, yeah. Sure, man. There’s a lot of inequities on campus. There’s always been inequities from day one, and there are inequities now. I haven’t been able to see this program, because it’s new, but it’s going to have to have flaws, you know.

Whenever there’s inequities on campus, if I don’t say anything, I’m part of the problem. So I’m a bit vocal at times. Of course, respectfully. I never want to be that person who’s condescending, disrespectful, talks down to folks.

But if you’re denying kids access, I’ll let you know. In a very professional manner. I’ll try my hardest.

Do you think that Lincoln, as a school, is providing?

Has it provided historically? It has made an attempt. But of course it has not. It has not been successful.

Presently, you’re talking about 10 days into school with a new leadership. Talk to me at the end of the school year and I’ll have a better assessment. But even then, it’s like a snapshot. I’m a big football fan. You can’t give a coach a five-year contract and expect everything to change in one year. You have to give them time to groom. To build. And then assess the situation.

And I learned that with experience. Because I had made some assessments personally, about our school after year one. And I made certain judgments about where we’re going. And a lot of those things became untrue. Because I realized, I’d never opened a school before. See, I came into teaching at Marston Middle School, and there’s a lot of stability. There’s a system in place.

So you would see people get plugged in to a train that was already moving. And it never derailed. If it looked like it was starting to stall, it’s easier to tweak, man. But my experience at Lincoln, from year one, was like wow, you’re building from the ground up. From scratch. And that experience helped me be very, very patient with every administration that’s come.

Historically, where do you think Lincoln’s fallen short?

We’ve always had a classic case of a community, a working-class community, where you have a lot of turnover with staff. That was huge, because you don’t get to create a culture.

When it seemed as if we were, certain outside external politics came into play and things weren’t allowed to come to fruition.

It seemed as if we were struggling for years to try to establish a strong culture, and we finally had like a group of teachers that didn’t leave, so that in itself was a positive. And then there was a change in leadership.

That impacts us a lot. I mean we’ve had three superintendents in the seven years that Lincoln has been here. So that in itself is going to hurt. If you have a school that is having turnover, lacks the stability and the strong foundation, and then there are changes from above …

Students bear the brunt of things that teachers are dealing with from above them, that have nothing to do with students.

You mentioned high turnover among staff. Take a teacher that grew up in a privileged community, who went college, had never really been around a low-income community, what types of preparation would give those teachers the tools to survive in a school like Lincoln?

If you’re in a teaching credential program, they’re just talking about test scores, achievement gaps.

There’s nothing in regards to relationship building. Building a base of support. Connecting to the community. Ensuring that you don’t just get off the freeway, drive in to the school, get off and go right back to where you came from.

You’re part of the community. You immerse yourself in the experience. You start learning the rules of engagement. The culture of the school. The culture of the people in your classroom. Just be open to an exchange of ideas. And take your time. Don’t feel pressure. The achievement gap isn’t going to close or widen in one day. Be constant.

There’s some people that come into our profession and realize that this isn’t for them. I have colleagues that have left the profession, man. That’s unfortunate, but they split because they know that this isn’t where their heart is. You have to have the passion, man. And it has to be constant. Or it’s going to be tough.

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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