Despite the many challenges facing Lincoln High School – yet another leadership change, problems with its Middle College program and more – school officials have never sounded so upbeat about the school.

District officials insist that Lincoln is headed in the right direction. Area superintendent Bruce Bivins said at a recent school board meeting that the district has a new plan to add additional staff members to Lincoln High so it can accelerate learning for students. Shirley Peterson, the school’s interim principal, said she plans to build school spirit by encouraging students to wear school colors on Fridays.

Superintendent Cindy Marten, for her part, said Lincoln is now set up for success.

“There’s one school, in particular, where I think we can really expect great things to happen this year, and that’s Lincoln High School,” Marten said at the same meeting.

Mel Collins is optimistic, too, so long as Lincoln can find the right principal.

Collins helped reopen Lincoln High with a $129 million new campus in 2007.

Before he led Lincoln, Collins was principal of several large urban high schools in Long Beach Unified, including Long Beach Polytechnic High, whose demographics were once very similar to Lincoln’s. Long Beach was able to turn Long Beach Poly into one of the most sought-after high schools in Southern California.

Lincoln has gone in a different direction – consistently ranking among the district’s lowest-scoring high schools. Data from 2015 – the most recent available – shows that only 31 percent of graduating seniors earned Cs or better in courses that are required to enter University of California and California State University schools. That rate was lower than any other traditional high school in the district.

Yet Collins, who retired in 2011 and lives in Mission Hills, believes Lincoln has the makings of a great school and now just needs an effective leader who can put it all together.

I wanted to know, from Collins’ vantage point, what the district should be looking for in a leader for Lincoln High and its surrounding schools.

Here’s some of what he had to say:

“The principal they select has to be there for at least six years. There has to be some consistency.”

It’s not just Lincoln that could benefit from Collins’ advice. Gina Gianzero, who leads Diamond Educational Excellence Partnership, a coalition of community groups that support students in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, said area schools tend to turn over principals at concerning rates.

In order for schools to establish a rigorous culture, principals need to have a clear vision and work to get buy-in from teachers and stick around for a while, she said.

“It has to be someone who is in tune with the community at large. But they also have to understand that one, two or three voices don’t count as ‘the community.’”

Collins said he’s noticed that district officials go to familiar sources – ministers or community leaders – who they believe represent all southeastern San Diego neighborhoods. District officials needs to reach out to more people if they genuinely want to understand the Lincoln community, he said.

“That person has to be visible – out there working with (students and teachers) – not just dictating what’s going to happen.”

The principal has to be out on campus, in classrooms, interacting with students and teachers, Collins said.

Evette Minor, who teaches black studies in Lincoln’s Middle College program, said that students have noticed Lincoln administrators are not involved with what they’re learning in class.

Over the past two years, Cheryl Hibbeln, an administrator from the district’s central office, has had a heavy hand in the changes happening on Lincoln’s campus. Collins said the district needs to put the right principal in place, then back off so that person can do the job.

“Staff the school with the right people – not teachers who are just there collecting a paycheck. Someone with some heart and stamina. You gotta have a feel for it.”

Collins said he remembers working with some teachers who “made a lot of noise” but didn’t want to work as a team to find a solution.

Changing that culture may not be easy. By this point, years of upheaval have galvanized teachers who have remained at Lincoln through its several different iterations. They’ve seen principals and superintendents come and go. Whoever takes charge of Lincoln will also need to get buy-in from a united core of teachers.

“You have to admit when you’re wrong.”

Despite years of upheaval, restructures and lagging performance, neither district officials, principals, nor school board members have acknowledged approaches that haven’t worked. But, Collins said, if Lincoln is to move forward, officials need to acknowledge where they went wrong.

Collins said he believes the school can reverse course – and that whoever comes in next needs to believe the same thing.

“If that mind is there, everything will fall into place. The bones are there. You just need to provide the nourishment to grow some meat and muscle,” Collins 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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