For almost two years, it hasn’t been entirely clear who’s running Lincoln High School, according to interviews and documents obtained by Voice of San Diego. And now, whatever leadership team was in place appears to be in upheaval – again.
Lincoln is a high-profile school that has struggled academically for years. And it hasn’t had stable leadership since it reopened its doors in 2007, following a major campus rebuild. Most recently, the entire administration was sacked in June 2019. Later that summer, Stephanie Brown, a middle school principal, was appointed to lead Lincoln.
It wasn’t as highly publicized but that’s also when Jennifer Roberson, then principal of Clairemont High, was appointed as Lincoln’s director. Few schools in San Diego Unified have a director. The person filling the role is supposed to help guide a school’s principal and vice principals.
But several workers at Lincoln told Voice of San Diego Roberson wasn’t just mentoring. She was actually running the school – and in particular was in charge of 10th, 11th and 12th grades. A separate document obtained by Voice of San Diego echoes this account. It is a pitch from Brown to district administrators for her to only be in charge of the ninth grade at Lincoln.
Now Roberson has suddenly been assigned to duties outside of Lincoln mid-school year and teachers at Lincoln have received little explanation as to why. It’s deeply unsettling, especially with the April 12 date to physically reopen schools looming, said four workers at Lincoln who requested anonymity because they feared retaliation from district administrators.
A recent contact list for the school did not list Roberson among the school’s top administrators.
The workers’ account – that Roberson was running the higher grades at Lincoln – conflicts with statements from district spokeswoman Maureen Magee. Magee maintains that Brown is currently responsible for all grade levels at Lincoln. Roberson “was never specifically responsible” for 10th, 11th and 12th grades, Magee wrote in an email.
Roberson has taken on new districtwide administrative duties, but her title as director of Lincoln has not changed, Magee said. Roberson is involved in planning an upcoming summer school effort “while remaining engaged at Lincoln,” Magee wrote.
Roberson did not respond to an email requesting comment. Brown said she was not available immediately for an interview and referred all questions to Magee.
The four Lincoln workers said Roberson has not been engaged in Lincoln at all to the best of their knowledge within the past month. She previously fielded most questions as to how the school should be run, they said, but has been unavailable to guide the school and answer their questions for weeks now.
The revolving door of leadership at Lincoln is nothing new to southeastern San Diego community members. But it’s painful, nonetheless.
“[The lack of stability] is pathetic. And this is something that goes beyond Superintendent Cindy Marten. It is also the direct ineffectiveness and the lack of leadership on behalf of the board,” said Philip Liburd, a community member who has been involved at Lincoln for years. “We have this supposedly progressive school board. But what’s been happening at schools like Lincoln and Porter Elementary and other schools – there’s not a damn thing progressive about that.”
In a planning document written by Brown just as she was beginning her new job in summer 2019, she laid out a five-year plan that delegated many typical principal duties to the complex director, which later became Roberson.
Brown refers to her first year on the job as a “planning year.” The complex director should “handle all operational items including safety, supervision, public relations, athletics, budget and master schedule,” during the first year, she wrote.
Brown proposes – the document is directed to then-chief of staff Staci Monreal and then-area superintendent Sofia Friere – focusing the majority of her attention on what she calls a “Freshman Academy Program.”
In the second year, “I would like for the Complex Director to be the lead for 10th – 12th grade and the head of operations and management,” Brown wrote.
Throughout the course of the five-year plan it is never clear at what point Brown would take over management of all grade levels. Brown is currently in her second year on the job.
Magee, the spokeswoman, called the document “an early planning document, superseded by others. It represented the start of the conversation, not the end.”
Magee also acknowledged that Lincoln administrators have been in talks recently about whether it might be appropriate to hire a co-principal for the school.
Magee repeatedly denied that Roberson was ever in charge of 10th, 11th and 12th grades. “This information is incorrect,” she wrote in one exchange.
The employees at Lincoln High who spoke to Voice of San Diego disputed that.
“She was basically acting as top principal. She was running the school, but she was even running certain aspects of ninth grade, which was supposed to be Stephanie’s domain,” one worker told me, referring to Roberson. “She basically ran the school from top to bottom.”
Roberson’s abrupt departure has left a vacuum of uncertainty for some.
One worker called her an “encyclopedia” of knowledge on how to run the school. Another said she was the “go-to person for any answer on that campus.”
“It’s gonna be a mess,” said one worker in reference to the April 12 reopening date for in-person learning. “There’s just a lot of disorganization. Lincoln is not the place to get your first years of experience as a high school principal.”
Before coming to Lincoln, Brown was principal of Montgomery Middle School. She served as vice principal of Dana Middle School before that and also as a special education teacher at Lincoln, the Union-Tribune reported.
Brown was chosen by a committee of 12 people that included community members to be Lincoln’s principal back in 2019.
The debate over improving conditions at Lincoln High School has long been a touchstone in San Diego’s education circles. Marten – who has been nominated to serve as deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education – has acknowledged as much. In recent years, she spent time at the school each week, hoping to make improvements in discipline and academics.
Despite Marten’s many claims of success in improving the district, those gains never materialized at Lincoln.
Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a school board member who represents the area where Lincoln is located, voted not to extend Marten’s contract in 2019, because she felt not enough had been done to help Lincoln.
“Getting Lincoln High School right has to be the district’s No. 1 priority, not with all the stops and starts,” Whitehurst-Payne said at the time. “We have not put together a comprehensive, coordinated picture for Lincoln High School because those students are indicative of other kids in the district who are not achieving.”
Roberson’s reassignment represents the sixth leadership shakeup in the past 14 years at Lincoln.