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    How far does a school district’s responsibility extend when it comes to turning around a struggling school – and what’s a parent to do when the district doesn’t fix the problems?

    That’s the question Scott Lewis and Laura Kohn take on this week, in the latest episode of our education podcast, Good Schools for All. They look at the question through the lens of Lincoln High School in southeastern San Diego.

    Learning Curve-sq-01Lincoln High itself has been the subject of several turnaround efforts in the last 10 years. It’s had a revolving door of principals – all of whom struggled to balance the expectations of the district with the school’s vocal teachers. Each new effort to revive it has ended in disappointment.

    Lincoln High has become a symbol for everything that troubles large urban high schools: lagging test scores, explosions of violence and a revolving door of administrators.

    In 2013, her first year at the helm of San Diego Unified, Superintendent Cindy Marten said, “What’s happening at Lincoln is at the heart of the struggle in America. When we get Lincoln right, we get America right.”

    The quote hasn’t aged particularly well. For one, not much has changed at Lincoln in the past three years. Today, the school is facing the same struggles it faced then – and in some ways the situation is even more dire.


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    Lincoln has been without a permanent principal since its last administrator, John Ross, left over the summer. Despite efforts to rebrand and restructure the school, its enrollment – about 55 percent of capacity – hasn’t ticked up in any meaningful way. It continues to burn through administrators. Parents and students describe a persistent disconnection between school district officials and Lincoln.

    To be sure, many of the problems Lincoln faces predate Marten by decades. It’s unreasonable to assume Marten could flip the script completely in three years.

    But the longer the school goes without meaningful intervention, the more students it will lose to nearby charter schools. Already, 70 percent of families opt to leave the neighborhood by the time they get to high school.

    Leaders of both Gompers and O’Farrell, two popular charter schools in southeastern San Diego, say they’ve been approached by members of the community, asking if they’d be willing to take a leading role in Lincoln’s transformation. Meanwhile, their schools are filled with kids who came seeking refuge from the problems that plague Lincoln High.

    And that’s what concerns Carl Cohn, who was superintendent of San Diego Unified when Lincoln reopened in 2007 after a $130 million rebuild.

    In his interview with Lewis and Kohn, Cohn is circumspect about the role of charter schools. He points to the NAACP, which over the summer called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.

    “I believe – and I think there are all kinds of reasons why – this issue around choice and charters is coming to a head. You’re probably aware that nationally the NAACP has called for a moratorium on charters, all kinds of issues are pointing to just a huge battle around this issue.

    “Part of the argument is: You can’t wait, the generation of poor kids of color who are going to get lost if you don’t give their parents a choice. NAACP is arguing that dual school systems are fundamentally unconstitutional.”

    Cohn points to an example that played out shortly before he landed in San Diego Unified in 2005. At the time, Cohn said, La Jolla High had made some rumblings about going charter because they didn’t want to be bound by a districtwide instructional mandate called the Blueprint for Success.

    “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… 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.

    “Now, if you’re a classic civil rights lawyer, who really understands the notion of a dual school system, you’re likely to be uncomfortable with that. And so part of this debate is in fact: What duty do school systems have to fix low-performing schools wherever we find them? And to what extent should school districts move mountains in order to make sure that happens?”

    Cohn believes that when a school is struggling, it’s incumbent upon the school district to roll up its sleeves and get to work, or else it’s going to lose those parents.

    But the other side to this question is: what happens when a school district doesn’t fix the school? In the case of Lincoln, we know what happens: Students leave and problems continue.

    Lewis and Kohn do a great job of spotlighting Lincoln’s most pressing concerns in this podcast, but want to be clear: They’re not simply bagging on Lincoln. In fact, Kohn says, it’s time for all of us – parents, teachers, community members – to “love on Lincoln.” And that starts with talking honestly about the problems Lincoln faces and finding solutions that work for parents and students.

    Because in the end, Lincoln High doesn’t belong to Marten, its teachers or the school board. It belongs to the community. And it will likely take a community effort to raise the school from its current status and give its students the school they deserve.

    What’s Working

    Kohn gives props to her local school, Ocean Knoll Elementary, which has been able attract families back to the school, draw strong teachers and raise student performance. It’s a story not unlike McKinley Elementary in San Diego Unified, which turned around test scores and shrank its achievement gap by bringing parents along and making them part of the solution.

    Number of the Week

    77: That’s the number of schools in San Diego County that fall in the lowest quartile of statewide schools on state tests in 2016, according to analysis by the California Charter Schools Association. The 77 schools are a mix of charter and traditional public schools. What do they have in common? Like Lincoln High, they could use additional attention and support from the community.

    Subscribe to Good Schools for All on iTunes or get the RSS feed here. Stream it here.

    Ed Reads of the Week

    San Diego Unified to Trump: Spare Our Undocumented Students (Times of San Diego)

    Earlier this week, the San Diego Unified school board passed a resolution that called for protections for undocumented students. During the campaign, president-elect Donald Trump promised to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program.

    Under DACA, qualifying individuals are safe from deportation and have the ability to work lawfully in the U.S. for two years, a status that could be renewed.

    Now, San Diego Unified is one of many school districts calling for DACA’s continuation: “We call on President-elect Trump to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and to clearly articulate the rights of all students to attend school without the fear of detention and deportation,” Superintendent Marten said.

    The resolution amounts to a gesture of support, but a meaningful one. The morning after voters elected Trump, VOSD began hearing reports of schools that needed to bring in additional counselors to help students cope with what the change could mean for their families. That was the case in Los Angeles Unified and many other school districts with high numbers of immigrant students.

    Even though Trump hasn’t backed off his promise to end the program, he suggested in an interview that he may be open to accommodating some of those who’ve been given temporary reprieve from deportation.

    “We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud,” Trump told Time magazine. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

    Short of continuing the program, though, it’s unclear what, exactly, Trump’s support would look like.

    ACLU criticizes S.D. elementary school for forcing students to plank (San Diego Union-Tribune)

    Students at Horton Elementary School were unruly, so the school decided to modify recess, forcing students to exercise and get into the push-up position on hot blacktop.

    Some developed blisters on their hands after they “were forced to hold their hands against the scalding hot blacktop” or face time in juvenile hall, according to a letter ACLU sent to Superintendent Marten.

    Then, when parents complained, they were banned from the campus for 14 days under threat of prosecution.

    The ACLU said the forced exercise amounted to corporal punishment. A San Diego Unified spokesperson disagreed, saying the exercise wasn’t punishment – the school simply “modified open recess.”

    San Diego Union-Tribune’s editorial board, at least, didn’t buy that reasoning. “Did you know corporal punishment was outlawed in California public schools in 1986? Someone needs to tell Horton Elementary School Principal Staci Dent and the San Diego Unified School District,” it wrote this week.

    Trump’s plan intended to reduce high cost of childcare through tax breaks (EdSource)

    Tax deductions and rebates are at the heart of President-elect Donald Trump’s child care policy proposal, writes EdSource, a plan that would offer the most help to high-income families, some help to middle-income taxpayers and not much help at all to low-income parents.

    “The plan very much tilts towards high-income families who need the least help,” said Elaine Maag, senior research associate at the Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

    There’s widespread agreement among education experts that access to quality, early education programs can pay dividends for students in school later in life. There’s also widespread agreement among parents that costs can prohibit families from taking advantage.

    In August, San Diego Unified announced – to much fanfare – that it was launching a “game changing” Preschool for All initiative. Despite its catchy title, however, that initiative amounted to letting parents pay up to $1,060 for a full day preschool spot. In other words, San Diego Unified’s initiative gave high-income parents an affordable preschool option, but did little for middle- and low-income parents who couldn’t afford what San Diego Unified is charging.

    In that way, San Diego Unified’s Preschool for All initiative isn’t so different than Trump’s proposal.

      This article relates to: Education, Good Schools For All, Lincoln High, The Learning Curve

      Written by Mario Koran

      Mario asks questions and writes stories about San Diego schools. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

      4 comments
      Dennis James
      Dennis James subscriber

      These questions and comments are related to the podcast. 

      Are students entering Lincoln really reading at 2nd grade level, or is that a questionable claim? If true, the problem is obviously larger than Lincoln - the entire cluster is failing.


      Regarding Carl Cohn's comments on getting good teachers south of I-5: It's my understanding that teacher seniority determines teacher placement at schools, and that the collective bargaining agreement does not allow extra pay for work at more needy schools. In other words teachers pick schools, schools (principals) do not pick teachers. Please correct me if I'm wrong. I found the teacher responses, as reported by Cohn, to be a bit disingenuous - we don't want a tyrannical principal stopping us from providing rich enrichment activities. Well if students are really reading at 2nd grade level in high school, doesn't bringing them up to grade level override everything else?


      Ashley Jockum(?) talks about 3 methods to address failing schools. Interesting she says charters are the least popular and most contentious way to improve schools. Everything I read in the news speaks to parents wanting more charters and more choice. Did she mean less popular with the district?


      There was discussion how Lincoln has replaced the principal a number of times but not the teachers - can the district remove teachers from a school? If so, how? This is not a trivial question. If districts are not free to move human resources around to provide the best total environment, then they will never be able to improve all schools. It's well known that public schools have a very difficult time firing teachers; I wonder what the teacher turnover is at charter schools? If charters can more quickly put effective teachers in place, by weeding out the ineffective, perhaps that explains some of their success. Perhaps VOSD could investigate?


      Successful schools in challenging demographics are possible, it's not magic. Longer school days, more days, rigorous application by teachers and good discipline are needed as a start. Carl Cohn talks about districts moving mountains to improve schools, but I don't think they know what to do, and they may not have the power to do it. It seems like most of the power belongs to the teachers, not the district. I don't know the answers but I'm intensely interested in the subject.


      Keep up the good work!

      Fred Picasso
      Fred Picasso

      There is a great need for principals who work as a team WITH teachers. A principal must create a safe, calm environment where discipline is supported, and students feel safe enough to learn. Teachers must feel safe enough to teach. Teachers must feel supported by their principal. The principal should not be a politician on the side. The principal should not also be president of the school board. This sticky political situation is

      not fair at all. This is what is happening in Sweetwater district.

      liz harley
      liz harley

      I would be interested in reading more about specific issues that Lincoln faces that are unique to that school. The first apparent problem is the lack of an administrator. A rudderless ship is hard to steer. Problems facing the school are entwined with problems facing the local community and tackling them will take buy-in from the district, city and local community leaders. But hiring and supporting a principal falls squarely on district leadership.

      Johnny Ridicalous
      Johnny Ridicalous

      @liz harley The criteria for hiring should be as follows: Be willing to stay at Lincoln for a while. Do not be beholden to outside interests, be they political or edpreneurial - always put students first.