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Abraham Lincoln High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Lincoln High School is leaderless again.

This week, the school lost its fifth leader in 12 years. Jose Soto-Ramos, as well as all three of the school’s vice principals, were removed from their positions Wednesday, the day after the school year ended.

Lincoln has persistently struggled with safety, academics and enrollment, despite getting a $129 million new campus in 2007. District leaders have promised time and again to help set the school on a better path. But Lincoln has lacked the stability that might help see those promises through.

Francine Maxwell, a parent and community member who has been involved with Lincoln for many years, knows the instability has been a problem. But she also thinks the slate needed to be wiped clean.

“Lincoln is a beast of a school with a lot of problems. We need people with the will and the skill to lead it,” Maxwell said. “[Sotos-Ramos] didn’t build enough support to bring in the changes and the new programs that he wanted. He was basically just flying neutral.”

Lincoln’s parent teacher organization president, Cindy Barros, had more mixed feelings. She thought the district went too far in firing the entire administration and that it did not do enough to support Soto-Ramos.

“I don’t think Mr. Soto changed the needle with some things going wrong. He was given a two-year opportunity to do that, but he didn’t perform like they wanted him to,” she said. “They also didn’t provide him enough support.”

Lincoln stacks up poorly against the district’s average in a number of categories, not just academics. For instance, the school’s dropout rate is three times as high as the district’s. Its chronic absenteeism rate is twice as high as the district’s other high school.

Superintendent Cindy Marten told Voice of San Diego in 2013 she disagrees with the use of the term turnaround when discussing Lincoln. But she did say that helping Lincoln find a new direction was central to her work as superintendent.

“What’s happening at Lincoln is at the heart of the struggle in America,” she said at the time. “When we get Lincoln right, we get America right.”

Marten has spent significant time at the school in recent years, meeting regularly with the principal, in efforts to help push it in the right direction. But the problems at Lincoln have been persistent and have not significantly changed during Marten’s six-year tenure.

Along with Sotos-Ramos, vice principals Zarpana Rietman, Devon Phillips and Myeshia Whigham are also on their way out. All four will be eligible for teaching positions in the district next year.

In a letter to Lincoln teachers and families, district officials said a new principal will be appointed before the start of next school year. Michael Brunker, who works with the San Diego YMCA, will help lead a nationwide search to fill the position.

Leadership turmoil has plagued Lincoln since the school reopened in 2007.

Soto-Ramos only became the school’s permanent principal after the search had dragged on for nearly a year – a disruption that angered students and parents and triggered a student walkout.

Parents and students had wanted Soto-Ramos, then a vice principal, to take over the role, but the district initially bristled.

Barros helped lead a community charge to help install him.

“This is unacceptable, disrespectful and downright malicious for SDUSD to not appoint Mr. Soto as our principal,” Barros wrote in the email to community members. “The only reason given was he was not the best qualified candidate for the position and he is too student centered. Mr. Soto has been at Lincoln for the past five years and is committed to staying at Lincoln … He is not a businessman or a politician looking to gain bullets in his resume.”

Before the district ultimately appointed Soto-Ramos at the end of May 2017, Shirley Peterson came out of retirement to lead the school on an interim basis. Before that, John Ross served as principal for two years before the district placed him on special assignment – a role that no longer exists. Ross was appointed after Esther Omogbehin, known as Dr. O, stepped down in 2014.

Mel Collins, who served as principal of Lincoln when the school reopened in 2007 after an expensive rebuild, told VOSD in 2016 that having stable leadership is crucial to Lincoln’s success.

“Principals who are around for a while, they have more stability at schools and make more progress,” he said. “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.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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