Years of declining enrollment has hollowed out sections of Lincoln High’s campus. The school has capacity for nearly twice the number of students who are currently enrolled. Classrooms sit vacant. Walkways are quiet.

Next year, some of that space might be occupied with students, but they won’t be attending Lincoln.

Last month, San Diego Unified school board members approved proposals for eight charter schools that want to use district facilities. Under the terms of Prop. 39, which California voters passed in 2000, the school district is legally required to provide them space – even if a neighborhood school currently occupies part of the campus.

In Lincoln’s case, this would mean sharing its campus with Arroyo Paseo, a charter high school that currently operates in City Heights. Arroyo Paseo isn’t a big school. This year, 124 students attend – roughly the same number who would head to a new space on the Lincoln campus next year.

Arroyo Paseo’s principal, Joe Bennett, said its small size allows educators to personalize instruction. Many who choose the charter school are students for whom traditional high schools weren’t working. Either they were falling behind on credits, or they just didn’t like the fit, Bennett said.

Currently, the district is only offering up five of Lincoln’s classrooms for the charter school, though that number isn’t set in stone. Think of the proposals like opening offers.

Based on available space, district staff members look at charter schools that applied for Prop. 39 space, determine how many classrooms they’re eligible to receive and then match charter schools to campuses where they fit. Charter school leaders get a month to think about the offer or make a case for additional space before they decide to take or leave the proposal.

Co-locations – two or more schools sharing the same campus – are controversial, but if anyone opposes Arroyo Paseo moving into Lincoln, they haven’t protested publicly.

The school board approved the proposal last month, without discussion. Marne Foster, who represented schools in the Lincoln Cluster before she resigned, was absent from the meeting.

John Ross, Lincoln’s principal, did not return multiple requests for comment. At a meeting last week at Lincoln, Ross did not mention the charter school.

Arroyo Paseo, like any of the eight charter schools that have been offered space, might pass on the offer. So it’s possible Ross didn’t want to raise the issue with parents until he knew it was a sure thing. But LaShae Collins, who is running for a spot on the school board, did bring it up.

A charter school is coming here? When? One parent asked. Which charter school? Asked a principal of a nearby elementary school. It was news to most people in the room.

Later, Collins told me her concerns had less to do with a charter school that might share Lincoln’s campus than the fact that so few parents knew about a change that could impact the school.

“Charter schools are not the enemy,” Collins said. “If parents feel they need to go out of their neighborhood school to find the school that’s right for their kids, then they should have that option. I’m all about options, whether that’s traditional district school or a public charter school.”

The real issue, Collins said, was transparency, and “making sure the community knows about what’s going on, what’s been discussed and what’s been voted on.”

Indeed, concerns over transparency were a thread that ran through the cluster meeting at Lincoln that night – parents also expressed concern about the district’s process for replacing Foster.

How Lincoln Got Here

Lincoln High opened the 2007-2008 school year with a rebuilt, state-of-the-art, $129 million campus. There was a brand new 790-seat performing arts center, two gymnasiums and capacity for 2,700 students. More than 2,300 students flocked to the school when it first re-opened.

Fast-forward through a series of leadership shake-ups and overhauls to its academic programs, and by the start of this year, only 1,450 students came through its doors. Lincoln High is now nearly half empty.

Or half full, if you’re an optimist. Ross has told me in the past Lincoln still struggles to shed its bad rap and the media that ignores the good things happening at the school, like its middle college program, which opened in 2014.

At the time, district leaders hoped access to college classes would lure more students back to Lincoln. But it didn’t work. This year Lincoln had fewer students than last. Which explains why Lincoln now finds itself in a place where it has to give away part of its school.

In a way, the Lincoln campus is perfectly designed to accommodate a separate school. In 2007, it opened with four small academies that would operate semi-autonomously. Those academies have since closed, but the structures remain.

Lionel Smith has been involved with schools in the Lincoln cluster for years. He was among a group of community members who pushed for nearby Gompers to convert from a neighborhood school to a charter school.

Smith was also one of the 16 people who applied to serve as an interim school board member, in the wake of Foster’s resignation, but was not among the four finalists the school board selected Wednesday night. The board will make a final decision on whom to appoint at Feb. 23’s school board meeting.

Smith said he doesn’t know enough about Arroyo Paseo to predict its impact on Lincoln. If it’s a bad school, he said, it could siphon off resources from the district.

“But if it’s a good charter, it will do one of two things: It will either pull kids from Lincoln, or make teachers union step up their game,” Smith said.

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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