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A program that school district officials pitched as a way to save Lincoln High by attracting new students is now on its death bed.
The STEAM Middle College, a program that allows Lincoln High students to take college classes, has this fall been reduced to one remedial course that won’t count for credit at four-year universities.
School leaders didn’t inform students about the changes until the first week of school. By then, some students had already gone to their first classes only to find empty classrooms with no instructors.
Biianca Benford, a Lincoln senior, registered for three college courses for the fall semester, but only got into one remedial math course. She didn’t understand the reason for the change until she went directly to her counselor, who told her courses had been cut at the last minute due to low enrollment.
Members of Lincoln’s parent-teacher organization heard about the last-minute changes and wanted answers. They called a meeting the second week of September and invited district officials.
Cheryl Hibbeln, a district administrator driving major changes at high schools, told the group the changes came down to numbers.
Under the agreement between the school district and City College system, whose instructors lead courses, a minimum of 35 students needs to register for each course in order to cover costs. That didn’t happen this year, so one remedial course was as much as they could offer, Hibbeln said.
That explanation didn’t satisfy parents. They said they weren’t aware of the requirement, and had the school communicated with them, they could have worked to recruit more students to sustain the courses.
Parents were surprised to learn about other changes impacting their kids at the meeting, too. Lincoln students will also see major changes this year to the way the school schedules classes. Students will now take fewer classes but spend more time in each of them. Hibbeln said this is an effective way for high schools to get students caught up on credits.
And Lincoln students need the extra time, Hibbeln said: Too many students arrive at Lincoln reading on a second-grade level.
It was all too much for Philip Liburd, chair of a group that advocates for Lincoln and schools that feed into it.
Liburd, who was at the meeting, emailed parents and community members the following day, urging them to organize in support of Lincoln students in light of the fact district officials are making unilateral decisions that may not be in students’ best interest.
“Folks, this is blatant disrespect that’s historical and must stop,” wrote Liburd. “We’ve had enough.”
To Liburd, it’s only the latest example in a longstanding pattern of launching a promising program at Lincoln High, then withdrawing support before it has a chance to flourish.
Discussion about the Middle College carried over to the following school board meeting, where Bruce Bivins, area superintendent, explained that the Middle College program isn’t being eliminated – it’s simply in transition. In fact, he said, the district is adding more staff members to support the program.
Part of the reason for the changes, Bivins said, is that until now Middle College courses have been offered after school, which created a conflict for students involved in sports or other activities. So officials needed to retool the program so it aligns better with students’ schedules.
Still, Bivins did not explain why changes were made without notifying students and parents before the school year started. Through his secretary, Bivins declined to speak with VOSD about the changes.
Lincoln in Transition – Again
Since 2007, change has been the one constant at Lincoln High school. The school has been restructured and rebranded multiple times, with each reform pitched as a solution.
Students flocked when the school reopened in 2007 after a $129 million rebuild – so many, in fact, that teachers didn’t have enough supplies for its students. Lincoln was reopened with four separate academies under a single masthead – the so-called schools-within-a-school model. But when progress lagged under that model, it moved back to a traditional high school structure.
In December 2013, former school board trustee Marne Foster declared a “state of emergency” at Lincoln High.
By that point, Lincoln had become the most avoided high school in the district. Enrollment dropped from 2,300 students to 1,550 within six years. At the time, Foster said 1,000 students who lived within Lincoln boundaries chose charter schools, or schools in different parts of town, over their neighborhood high school.
“What are you going to do to attract students back to Lincoln?” Foster said at the 2013 school board meeting. “Well you can’t attract students back to Lincoln until we have invested in Lincoln and made sure that we are responsive to the needs of our students,” she said.
Foster believed a middle college program would solve the school’s enrollment problems and encouraged her colleagues on the school board to support the plan. Four months later, that’s what they did.
Lincoln opened the 2014 school year in celebration. The new Middle College program had arrived.
Two years in, however, it’s clear the program alone hasn’t been enough to draw a significant number of students back to its doors.
That’s not to say the Middle College itself is to blame. Roughly 200 students successfully completed Middle College courses since 2014 with better than a 95 percent pass rate, according to data presented at a 2015 school board meeting.
Based on those numbers, Lincoln students fare better in Middle College courses than they do in Advanced Placement courses, which also allow students to earn college credit.
Students who complete Middle College courses with a C or better earn three credits that transfer to four-year universities.
AP students, on the other hand, must score high enough on a national, end-of-year exam in order to receive college credit.
And students aren’t doing well on those tests. A review of AP exam scores obtained by VOSD shows that Lincoln students took 262 AP exams in 2015. Students failed nearly 80 percent of them.
Yet, Lincoln still invests most heavily in its AP courses. This semester, Lincoln offers only one course, a remedial math course, through the Middle College program. It offers 11 AP courses.
Several students at Lincoln said they preferred the Middle College program to its AP courses.
Rayranda Jefferson, a recent Lincoln graduate, took two Middle College courses in high school and said the program prepared her for college.
“The courses were interesting and it’s better than taking AP courses because you’re more likely to get college credit. And isn’t that the point?” she said.
Izay Harris, another recent Lincoln graduate who took Middle College courses, said the program inspired him to pursue college. He plans to become a teacher.
“I was proud to be there,” said Harris. “It doesn’t make sense to cut something that helps so many people.”
What most concerns Cindy Barros, president of Lincoln’s parent-teacher organization, is that parents and students are too often last to know about changes coming to their school. District officials ask parents and students to trust them, but are not open about the reasons for changes, she said.
“At this point, I see that there appears to be a decisive, systematic plan to humiliate and destroy Lincoln High School students and the community. There’s still a thousand questions unanswered. Parents do not know, and that’s wrong,” Barros said at a recent school board meeting.