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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.
Lincoln High is one problem that San Diego Unified just can’t solve.
This week, we reported that the program created to give Lincoln High School students access to community college courses left the majority of its students with failing grades last semester. In response, San Diego Unified reached an agreement with the community college district that allowed those students to withdraw from the course.
The courses were part of the STEAM Middle College, which officials launched in 2014 and pitched as a way to repopulate the struggling campus. In the first two years, roughly 200 students enrolled in classes at City College, with better than a 95 percent pass rate.
But Lincoln and its Middle College saw major changes over the summer. After key Lincoln staff members left – including the former principal and the person who previously oversaw the program – students who signed up for college classes were routed into a remedial math course.
Of the 66 students who took the remedial math course, only 17 passed – a 25 percent pass rate.
In an email this week, Bruce Bivins, who oversees Lincoln High and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it, told a parent that moving forward, Lincoln will provide more ongoing support to students taking college classes, improve communication with parents, students and college professors and review college course syllabi with students more carefully so they’ll know what to expect.
But if that message reached parents before this week’s school board meeting, they weren’t satisfied. At the meeting, parents asked for clarity on how their children’s grades will be impacted and how they’ll be supported moving forward. To Cindy Barros, president of Lincoln’s parent-teacher organization, last semester’s fiasco is only San Diego Unified’s latest failed attempt to support students at Lincoln High.
Each new story about missteps at Lincoln brings a new round of questions from readers who ask what can be done, if anything, to set the school on a path for success. Let’s take a look at several potential solutions that are commonly floated.
Fix the Problems
School turnaround is difficult, time-consuming work, but it can happen.
Most successful turnaround stories feature an experienced principal who creates plans for the school and stays around long enough to implement those reforms with consistency. And that’s a figure who’s been missing at Lincoln, which has had four different principals in the past 10 years.
But right now even identifying the problems seem as difficult as fixing them.
Lincoln started the school year in disarray. It had just lost its former principal and was searching for a permanent replacement. Students had shown up to classes unaware they’d been canceled over the summer. Parents and students expressed confusion as to why the school was suddenly changing student course schedules.
But in the midst of all the changes, Bivins insisted at an October school board meeting that Lincoln was on the upswing. Superintendent Cindy Marten said the school was finally 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.
The results of last semester make it appear as though Marten was either unaware of the problems Lincoln faced when she made that comment, or was unwilling to speak candidly about the school.
Either way, comments like Marten’s make it hard for Lincoln parents to trust the information they’re hearing from district leaders. To be sure, the problems that plague Lincoln are longstanding and complicated. But it will be virtually impossible for the school to address them unless district leaders start speaking openly about what they are.
Close the School
School closure is often tossed up as a solution for failing schools whose problems seem too deeply entrenched to ever solve. From a fiscal standpoint, it might sound logical to close a school and save all the money that’s spent staffing it.
Politically, closing a school is one of the most explosive and unpopular decisions a school board can make. That may be part of the reason they’ve closed so few of them, despite declining enrollment across the district for the past 16 years.
But school closure isn’t the quick-fix solution many imagine. Lincoln is filled to just over half capacity, but still serves 1,450 students. Those students would still need a school and, most likely, transportation to get them there. That alone would cut into whatever savings the closure could offer.
Lincoln’s campus is also massive. Even if the district were to close it and let it sit vacant, it would still have to employ workers to maintain the facility so it wouldn’t go to pot and be costly to one day reopen.
Not to mention that for decades, Lincoln High has been a source of pride and identity for southeastern neighborhoods. Closing the school would have major political implications and would almost certainly incite intense pushback.
Allow a Separate Charter School to Use Some of the Campus
It might sound like an awkward situation to have a traditional school share a campus with a charter school. But it already happens on several San Diego Unified campuses.
Under the terms of Prop. 39, which voters passed in 2000, school districts must provide charters with space – even if an existing neighborhood school currently occupies part of that area.
And considering the fact that Lincoln’s campus was originally designed to sustain four autonomous campuses – conceived when the small-school model was at peak popularity – Lincoln’s campus is actually well-positioned to allow a charter school to enter.
In order for charter schools to use district facilities, they have to make a formal request to the school district and wait to hear back whether there’s space. Last year, the school district initially offered space on Lincoln’s campus for one charter school, Arroyo Paseo, to use. The agreement didn’t move forward, but assuming Lincoln’s enrollment remains low, it’s likely a situation that will arise again.
Convert to a Charter School
Carl Cohn, who was San Diego Unified’s superintendent when Lincoln reopened in 2007, joined our podcast a couple months back to talk Lincoln High and the challenge of school turnarounds.
Cohn described a situation that played out shortly before he landed in San Diego Unified in 2005. At the time, Cohn said, parents at La Jolla High didn’t want to be bound by a districtwide instructional mandate called the Blueprint for Success and threatened to leave the district if they weren’t exempted.
“The district ran out there and said: ‘If you go charter, that would be a disaster of unspeakable proportions, so whatever you want, whatever we need to do to fix La Jolla, we’ll do it,’” Cohn said.
“But then, when I got there, it was clear that part of the message to parents south of Interstate 8 was: You know what? In order for you to get what you need for your child, you may have to go charter.”
Cohn wasn’t advising that Lincoln High parents try to convert Lincoln to a charter school. Instead, he was speaking to what could happen if the district didn’t move mountains to fix the problem at Lincoln High.
And that’s exactly what has happened in southeastern San Diego. Lincoln’s population may be dwindling, but nearby charter schools like Gompers and O’Farrell are stocked. Roughly seven out of 10 area families choose to send their kids to schools outside the neighborhood by the time they reach high school.
In fact, both Gompers and O’Farrell were traditional district schools that converted to charter schools. Leaders at both schools attribute the gains they’ve made since to the increased flexibility that comes with being a charter.
Lincoln could go this route, too. But it would require that parents, or whoever starts a petition, get signatures from more than half the permanent, certificated teachers currently employed at Lincoln.
After 10 years of turmoil at Lincoln, many teachers have left. But those who remain are a committed and vocal core of teachers who would likely resist any attempts to charterize Lincoln High.
That said, converting Gompers to a charter school gave the community a sense of control that the school district couldn’t give them. At least one Lincoln parent at this week’s school board meeting wondered if they should resort to similar measures.
“Do we need to take this school from you and deal with it ourselves?” said Dwayne Harvey, a member of Lincoln’s PTO. “If that’s what we need to do, that’s what we’re going to have to start doing. Because you guys are not working with us. And this school is not going to fail, even though you guys seem to be setting it up for failure. We ain’t going to let it fail.”
VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.