In the nearly 10 years since Lincoln High underwent a $129 million rebuild, instability and insecurity on campus has become the norm.

The school has been restructured and rebranded multiple times, with each new reform pitched as the solution to dwindling enrollment and low test scores. Four superintendents and four principals have come in since 2007, each bringing new reforms.

Many parents don’t feel safe sending their kids to Lincoln High. In surveys with principals, parents list safety as a top reason for avoiding Lincoln and the middle schools that feed into it. They opt instead for schools in different parts of town or charter schools with strict discipline policies.

At most schools, back-to-school night gives parents a chance to meet with teachers and principals. Lincoln’s back-to-school night this year allowed students and parents a chance to meet with police officers.

Today, Lincoln is enrolled at just over half of its capacity. Rows of classrooms sit vacant.

Last month, a top district official told Lincoln parents one reason for lagging performance was that too many students arrive to campus reading at a second-grade level. That issue, she said, had more to do with the fact that elementary and middle schools are letting students slip through unprepared.

The most recent attempt to solve the enrollment problem – a new program that allows high school students to earn college credits – has failed to attract a significant number of students back to the school. Now that, too, is being retooled.

Lincoln is spinning. This year, voters will pick a new trustee to represent Lincoln and other schools in southeastern San Diego. The school too, will select a permanent replacement for John Ross, the latest principal to leave.

Both of those leaders will face the improbable task of reversing decades of low performance and low expectations for students at San Diego Unified’s most embattled campus.

A Source of Pride — and Tension

Lincoln High has come to represent everything that troubles large urban high schools: continuous staff turnover, lagging test scores, eruptions of violence and students segregated by race, poverty and language.

The challenges didn’t mount overnight.

In 1977, a Superior Court judge found 23 San Diego Unified schools, including Lincoln High, to be so racially isolated they deprived black and Latino students’ equal rights to a quality education. He ordered the district to create a plan to desegregate its schools.

Owing to both explicit restrictions and unspoken rules, southeastern San Diego neighborhoods near Lincoln were originally one of the few areas black families could reside. It showed up in school demographics. At the time, roughly 91 percent of Lincoln’s students were black or Latino.

But for just as long, Lincoln has also been a source of identity and neighborhood pride. The history of the school is entwined with the struggle of the black community.

“Storied” is the word used most often to describe its athletic programs. The school is home to at least 20 professional football and basketball players, including NFL Hall of Famer Marcus Allen.

But the Lincoln of the 1990s faced the same violence sweeping other high school campuses in Southern California. In 1994, a day after he graduated, class valedictorian Willie Jones was gunned down in a drive-by shooting as he left a graduation party. Jones was on his way to Cornell, where he’d earned a four-year scholarship. Instead, he was buried in his graduation robe.

Wendell Bass, who became Lincoln’s principal in 1995, understood that Lincoln students had very different needs than students at schools north of Interstate 8. He wanted to make Lincoln a hub for residents in the surrounding neighborhoods where they’d access wraparound services.

Around then, activists and community leaders began to call for a bigger, better Lincoln. Bass and members of his team went to work on a plan to remodel the school.

Then, in 1998, two weeks before voters passed a $1.51 billion construction bond, Bass got a call from Bruce Husson, a friend who worked in the district’s facilities department at the time. The population in southeastern San Diego is exploding, Bass recalls Husson telling him. A simple remodel wouldn’t be enough. The district needed to turn Lincoln into a large high school that could fit around 3,000 students. To accomplish that, they’d need to raze the school and rebuild it completely.

It was the beginning of a project that would become the most expensive campus in the history of the school district.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

What school officials didn’t know then was that San Diego’s population was just about to peak. By the time the district finished construction in 2007, the district had lost more than 10,000 students. It would set the stage for a campus too big for its enrollment to support.

But nobody saw that by the time construction started. After the old Lincoln buildings were demolished, Bass scooped up the crushed rock and saved it. Years later, as construction workers laid the foundation for the new buildings, Bass walked through and sprinkled in pieces of crushed rock. He wanted to make sure, whatever Lincoln became, it would retain its legacy.

Two Schools, Two Different Paths

Carl Cohn was in the courtroom in 1977 the day a judge order San Diego Unified to desegregate its schools.

At the time, Cohn worked as an administrator for Long Beach Unified, whose demographics were similar to San Diego Unified’s. Forced integration was dividing districts across the country. In San Diego, the great fear was that forced integration would drive white families toward the suburbs.

Long Beach school officials wanted to avoid court-ordered integration at all costs and sent Cohn down to watch the trial.

Later, Cohn left the courthouse and reported back to Long Beach Unified to devise a plan: They’d turn their inner-city high schools into academic and athletic magnets that would draw students from all parts of Long Beach.

Long Beach Polytechnic High School, in particular, matched Lincoln’s demographics. It was an underperforming, inner-city high school plagued by violence. Its athletic program had a strong reputation.

“Long Beach was adamant that they would do whatever it takes to avoid having a judge telling them what to do,” Cohn said. “If that meant locating the top academic high school in the inner city, that’s what they were willing to do.”

Today, Long Beach Poly offers an array of accelerated and college-prep programs that it says sends more students to University of California colleges than any other high school in California. The football team has sent more players to the NFL than nearly every other high school in the country. In 2005, Sports Illustrated named it the “Sports School of the Century.”

So in 2005, when San Diego Unified school board picked Cohn to lead the district, he reached back to Long Beach and plucked Mel Collins, who’d been successful as principal of Long Beach Poly.

Collins took the offer and landed in San Diego in 2006. He had 18 months to open Lincoln High.

He was up for the challenge. “I knew it was my last time around,” said Collins. “I knew it was my Super Bowl.”

Early Signs of Problems

They had built the school. Now they needed students to come.

Reopening a school closed for four years was a tricky task. In the time that passed, students had jumped on buses and scattered to charter schools and schools in other neighborhoods. Collins and his team would have to persuade those students to return to their neighborhood school.

Then, on the first day of school, a bittersweet surprise: 2,300 students from 77 schools clamored to get in – 400 more than school leaders planned for. Teachers didn’t have enough supplies for all the students. Science labs lacked beakers and microscopes. Ceramics classes wouldn’t have clay until the following month.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Shelia Jackson, then a school board member, basked in the numbers.

“You have a public school with a waiting list with the ninth grade. It’s a really, really good feeling,” Jackson said at the time.

It didn’t take long for the honeymoon to fade. Collins found himself triaging crises and juggling the logistical tasks of four separate schools. Lincoln didn’t have staffing to support all the students with mental health needs.

Right away, Collins noticed something new.

“What we found once we opened was that it was no longer the African-American high school of the past. It was now a Latino school,” Collins said.

The demographic shift, driven by changing neighborhoods in southeastern San Diego, had actually started before Lincoln closed for the rebuild. As black families moved out, Latino families moved in. By 2007, Lincoln was 52 percent Latino, 40 percent black and 2 percent white.

Tensions between black and Latino students erupted in the occasional fight, Collins said, but in most cases it was beef that started in the neighborhood and spilled onto campus.

Despite the hiccups, Collins believed Lincoln would “rise like a phoenix,” as he told one reporter in 2011.

Privately, however, Collins grappled with the low expectations adults seemed to have for Lincoln students. He remembers speaking with a staff member from the district’s central office who told him success at Lincoln meant escaping disaster.

“She told me, ‘If you can avoid the chaos that’s been part of Lincoln’s story for so long, you’ll be a saint.’ I said to myself, ‘Just what do you expect out of these kids?’”

Then, just a month into the school year, Cohn announced he’d be leaving the district.

Cohn had followed former superintendent Alan Bersin, notorious for driving top-down reforms. But while school board members knew what they didn’t want, they couldn’t find a vision on which they all agreed. Cohn remembers each of the five board members pulling in different directions.

“I think the board had vetted my experience. I don’t think they vetted my style,” Cohn said. “They didn’t like Bersin’s top-down plan, but they were all waiting for the Carl Cohn top-down plan. And I just said, ‘There is no Carl Cohn top-down plan.’”

Out went Cohn, and in came Terry Grier, a superintendent who favored data-driven accountability.

Collins stayed four more years, until 2011.

Rebranding as a Solution

When Lincoln High reopened in 2007, it was a test: Would the big investment pay off for San Diego students?

Nine years of evidence answers that question: No, it has not.

Enticed by $7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, district officials decided to open Lincoln with four separate academies under one masthead.

Bass remembers concern about the model even early on. “The community never wanted four high schools,” he said. “But the district was drinking Gates’ Kool-Aid.”

Many teachers and students liked the personalized feel of the small-school structure, but the school wasn’t delivering academically.

In 2012, the year Esther Omogbehin took over as principal, Lincoln was the lowest-scoring high school in the district. Omogbehin ordered a transcript audit and discovered only 50 would-be seniors, out of 350, were on track for graduation.

The school showed flashes of improvement. Omogbehin revamped the math department, which she later credited to a jump in test scores.

But Omogbehin was a polarizing figure, given to aggressive confrontation with teachers. They peppered her with grievances, formal complaints teachers can file if they feel principals are violating the terms of their contracts.

Tensions often carried over to school board meetings, where platoons of teachers descended in matching red T-shirts.

Cohn, who now leads a state agency that helps school districts create accountability plans, said the divisiveness isn’t uncommon to high schools like Lincoln.

“It’s kind of in the nature of large urban high schools to have factions within the faculty, and it takes a real strong leader to unify those factions. Often the divisiveness is a product of lacking a strong, unifying leader. A good principal is able to take all that energy and channel it into a unified direction,” he said.

Omogbehin was never able to do that. By 2013, tension was so thick that the district embedded a staff member on campus to smooth relations.

Then, late in the year, a breaking point. Then-school board trustee Marne Foster and Superintendent Cindy Marten paid a visit to the school. Marten told the principal to pick a new job or leave the district, Omogbehin said. Omogbehin moved to Houston.

Omogbehin would later attribute her departure to tangling with teachers, and in turn, the teachers union, which she said pressured Marten to remove her.

“When a system is bad and you start fixing it, people are either going to change or they’re going to leave,” Omogbehin said last year. “If they don’t want to leave and that change keeps approaching them, then they get fearful and they begin to stir up all kinds of stuff.”

Lincoln had claimed another leader. But the school board had a new plan: Lincoln would open a Middle College program, where students could take college courses for college credit.

Foster, who promoted the Middle College, said it would save lives and restore the promise of Lincoln.

Lincoln Now

On the first day of school in 2014, district officials and school leaders smiled for cameras. News trucks waited, and cheerleaders cheered. The Middle College had arrived.

Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle
Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Now, the program officials sold as Lincoln’s great hope is already falling apart.

District officials told concerned parents the program had been cut down to a single course because not enough students signed up for the courses. They didn’t tell families about the changes until after some students had arrived for their first classes only to find empty classrooms and no instructors.

It wasn’t the only change the Lincoln students will have to absorb this year. School leaders are also revamping the way they schedule classes so that students take fewer classes but spend more time in each. Cheryl Hibbeln, a senior district administrator who drove the changes, said it’s been an effective way to get students caught up on credits.

That’s important, Hibbeln told parents at a recent meeting, because too many students show up on Lincoln’s campus reading at a second-grade level.

Hibbeln’s comment shocked and offended parents and community members. But she wasn’t the first person to voice concern.


Bass said he encountered the same thing 20 years ago. “It’s the result of miseducation of our children,” he said. “It’s generational. We have children who don’t have dreams, because those dreams have been smashed. Because we have schools that don’t remind them they’re brilliant.”

Hibbeln said area middle and elementary schools aren’t doing enough to prepare kids for high school. Others say the pattern starts before kids even enter school.

Gina Gianzero leads Diamond Educational Excellence Partnership, a coalition of community groups that support students in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods. Gianzero said that many of the issues schools near Lincoln confront – poverty, trauma and language barriers – aren’t unique to the area.

But she has noticed that area schools do turn over principals and teachers at concerning rates.

“Principals who are around for a while, they have more stability at schools and make more progress. After you do that for a while, the culture and expectations are ingrained at the school. Over time, a strong principal can shape the culture. But that takes time. They have to put in work and time and slowly get buy-in to their vision. Sometimes we have leaders without vision or a sense of urgency. Sometimes they’re not good at getting buy-in.”

But time is a luxury that parents can’t afford. And at Lincoln, a growing number of voices are demanding more transparency and sense of urgency out of district administrators.

“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,” Cindy Barros, president of Lincoln’s parent-teacher organization, said at a recent school board meeting.

Students, too, are feeling isolated. Evette Minor, who teaches black studies in Lincoln’s Middle College program, believes students have begun to internalize the low expectations many adults – both inside and outside the school – seem to have toward them.

“Two years ago, one student told me, there was an energy and school spirit on campus. But at some point, that changed,” Minor said.

Last year, Minor led students through an in-class discussion about the perceptions of Lincoln High. She asked students what they wanted district officials to know about them.

“The discussion took over the class,” Minor said. “Students said they want to feel respected. They don’t want to be made to feel stupid. They want administration to care about what they’re learning – more than just showing up at the beginning and end of the semester. They want to know which teachers are there for them and which ones are collecting a paycheck.”

The Future of Lincoln

Mel Collins liked San Diego so much he stayed around after he left the school district. Today, he lives in Mission Hills, where in the mornings he walks his ridgeback, Max. Over coffee recently, Collins reflected on his career.

“Ask me if I would do anything differently – you damn right. But you can’t see that at the time,” Collins said.

Gone are the small academies Collins helped open at Lincoln. Gone are the administrators who worked alongside him to open the school. Gone are two principals who came in after him.

Collins was never able to do at Lincoln what he did at Long Beach Poly.

Today, Lincoln is 88 percent black and Latino – nearly as segregated as it was in 1977 when a judge ordered the district to desegregate schools. With 1,500 students, the school is enrolled at just over half of its capacity. On a variety of measures – like test scores, drops outs, and suspension rates – it’s consistently one of the district’s lowest-performing high schools.

Lincoln today is on its fourth principal since 2007. Over the summer, Ross, the most recent principal, took another job with the district and Marten appointed Shirley Peterson as interim principal. The school will select a permanent principal in the coming months.

And next month, San Diegans will pick the next school board member to represent schools in Southeast San Diego.

Collins believes Lincoln’s future depends on picking the right leader, for both Lincoln and its surrounding schools. And he hopes whoever it is sticks around for a while.

“My assessment of this whole mad circle is that every time a new superintendent comes in, a new principal comes in, the direction changes. It’s a Band-Aid approach and there’s not enough support and follow-through to keep things consistent. Why would you sink $130 million into a school and then let it sit dormant?” he 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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