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Education Special: Lincoln High’s Rebirth

This report and others in this series were made possible by The Wallace Foundation, The Principal Story project, and the Knowledge Center.


As part of our special series on education, These Days hits the road for a live broadcast from the campus of Lincoln High School in Southeast San Diego. We'll look at how a new campus is changing lives and the neighborhood.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA (President of the United States): So today I want to ask all of you. What's your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): That's President Barack Obama from his speech last week to students across the nation. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to a special These Days broadcast from the campus of Lincoln High School in southeast San Diego. President Obama used his speech last week to urge students to live up to their potential, commit to their education and be responsible for their own success. The educators at Lincoln High have said they see this new campus itself as part of the motivation kids need to learn and succeed. From a dilapidated, inner-city school with a dwindling enrollment of 300, Lincoln High has emerged as a state of the art campus with 2400 students and just about every new learning innovation available. We'll hear the story of Lincoln High, the past, the present and what contribution the school and its students might make in the future. My guests are two men who have been instrumental in creating this new campus. Melvin Collins is executive principal of Lincoln High School. And, Mel, welcome to These Days.

MELVIN COLLINS (Executive Principal, Lincoln High School): Good morning. Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And architect Joseph Martinez, whose company Martinez and Cutri Corporation, designed the new Lincoln High School. He's also a graduate of Lincoln High, class of '66. Joseph, welcome.

JOSEPH MARTINEZ (Architect, Martinez and Curti Corporation): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Did you go to the old Lincoln High? Call us and tell us about the school. And have you seen this new campus? What do you think of it? Call us with your questions and your comments. Now, Mel, if you would, tell us the story of Lincoln High School. Why was the school closed down and demolished back in 2003?

COLLINS: Well, you know, Maureen, I wasn't around at the time but I hear stories that, yes, it did deteriorate to a certain degree, inside and out. Dwindling enrollment. And I think during the Bersin era, he convinced the community to let's start all over. And they did that, and I guess maybe four years later, this is what we have. I guess it was the – My dates get kind of mixed up. September 7 – no, September 5th '07, our first year in existence. I came down from Long Beach and spent a year planning and hiring, and we opened in '07, September and this is our – we're entering our third year of existence.

CAVANAUGH: Now the Bersin you talked about is former San Diego School superintendent…


CAVANAUGH: …Alan Bersin. Now in doing some research about this school, I read that some people thought that Lincoln would not reopen.

COLLINS: And that was the general feeling at the time. And, again, I was not privy to, you know, firsthand information but a bunch of folks were kind of skeptical of it even coming about, and, you know, I – and I don't know where that went but, you know, there was the Lincoln Gompers Redevelopment Coalition or a group of folks who came together and said what they wanted the new Lincoln to look like and they spent a lot of time and effort putting something together to give us kind of a roadmap as to what direction we needed to take.

CAVANAUGH: So when it closed down, student enrollment was about 300. And what is it now?

COLLINS: Well, we are staffed for about 2300 and we're growing every day because new enrollees continue to walk through the front door.

CAVANAUGH: So is this an example of you built it and they came?

COLLINS: I hope so. Yes, it is. Joe built it and they came, right?

CAVANAUGH: Give us an idea of the makeup of the students who go to this school.

COLLINS: You know, largely our population is about 60% Latino, 30-some-odd percent African-American, and a few percent others, kids who had been displaced all over San Diego when it closed down. In our first year of operation, they staffed us for 1800 and 2400 showed up and they came from about 77 different schools throughout San Diego city and the county. Since then, we have instituted and put into play every system known to man that operates a high school campus and I can honestly say that the staff, the community, the parent participation, the folks who come to Lincoln on a daily basis, have done a yeoman's job of bringing about an environment in which to do work after only two years, and a very rich and nurturing environment. Very pleased at this point but still a lot of work yet to do because, as you know, nothing happens overnight and it takes three to five years, in my estimation, to infuse a culture and to bring about this ownership by not only the community and the parents who have children here but by the kids themselves.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell our listeners that you may be hearing some buzzing noises and bells, that's just warning kids that classes are changing and they have to leave campus and move from one class to another. So we are really on campus here at Lincoln High, just want to let you know. And I want to bring Joseph Martinez into the conversation. He's the architect who really created this magnificent campus, this layout with all these buildings. Twenty – What is it? 28 acres of campus here? I want to take you back, Joseph. You graduated from Lincoln High, as I said, back in the late sixties. What was the school like when you went here?

MARTINEZ: What was really interesting was that Lincoln was a community school. Having grown up in this community at 49th and Logan and went to Knox and Gompers, Lincoln, I knew nearly all the students here. So maybe there was an enrollment of about maybe 800 to 900, 10th through 12th grade. And what really stuck out was that we – not only did we know each other but, you know, we were all friends and we were highly motivated. There were a number of students that, class of '66, went to Harvard college, UC Berkeley, a lot went to UCSD, San Diego State, one of them attended the United States Air Force Academy. And, as I recall, in our year, we generated over a million dollars in scholarship money, and that's just phenomenal. That was as high as any school in San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: So I wonder, what was it like for you when you were granted the commission of redesigning this school? What was the vision that you had when you came here to do this?

MARTINEZ: Career path opportunity, to let all the students have that same excitement and same thrill that I got from Lincoln High School, and put it in the buildings, put it in the spaces between the buildings. And then with Mel and his group bringing in great teachers, the commitment of the administration, Tony Alvarado, who is the Dean of Education, as I recall, the superintendent Alan Bersin, and we had really great board members: Ed Lopez and Rob Ottinger. And they were very strong and very forceful and they said we want the best campus for our students, something that will be state of the art and something that you would look across the country and no one could rival. And then further, that this thing – this school would have the flexibility to be able to be a significant educational center in the decades to come.

CAVANAUGH: And I want everyone to know that what we're seeing here is, we're right outside the library and we're seeing students pass and they're changing from one building to another, going to – and there's the bell. It's basically very, very orderly, the kids just moving from one side of the campus to the other. You know, Joseph, I would like – and, Mel, I would like you to get involved in this, too. Could you just give us a visual picture, if you would, about what this campus looks like? I don't want you to go into everything but there are multi-levels. There are a lot of stairs. There's a lot of open space. I saw a lot of athletic courtyards just to our right here. Tell us a little bit about what this campus looks like, Joseph.

MARTINEZ: Well, we started with the idea that we wanted to make this a community school and to engage the characteristics and fabric of the community, which certainly is Imperial Avenue. That's a benchmark street. So that the civic plaza that we've created here at Lincoln, which is defined by the library and the performing arts center, the gymnasium and the tennis court area, is actually a public domain, a public square that when you look west, you see downtown. When you look north, you see Imperial Avenue. When you look east and up the grand staircase, you see east county. And that is to engage not only the students, the public square, the discourse that takes place in academia, but also to bring in the community. Likewise, the intent was to get four individual schools, roughly at about maybe 750 students in each school, to provide the flexibility in the educational program. And each of these schools are self-sustained so that when you look at it and how it treats the edges, it fully engages the community and becomes a community asset and, in turn, provides other economic opportunities, cultural opportunities, civic opportunities, for the greater community and it becomes a major asset. So that's why you see a lot of the public elements, for example the performing arts, right on Imperial, so that can be used in the evening hours as an example. Likewise, the fields, the athletic fields. When I was at Lincoln, we had a lot of world class athletes here. In fact, I think 44 athletes from the football team, during the course of Lincoln's glorious history, are members of the NFL. So you take Imperial Avenue, you look south and you view across the girls' softball area, the boys' varsity baseball to the track and the field, and to JFK Park. The park is an existing asset within the community and now it's integrated into…

CAVANAUGH: As part of the school, right.

MARTINEZ: …the campus. Exactly right.


MARTINEZ: And so it becomes that integral focus. The last thing is that we had a lot of workshops and the community, the folks that live here day in and day out, really wanted a signature work and they participated in, I would guesstimate, close to 150 workshops over a six-year period that I worked on this project.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I am speaking with Joseph Martinez. He designed the new Lincoln High School, he and his company. He's a graduate of Lincoln High. And Mel Collins, who is principal of Lincoln High School. And, Mel, I just have to point out, as these kids were walking by, you're pointing at them like what is it? What – what do you want them to know?

COLLINS: Well, you know, Maureen, there's not a – I'll tell you. There's not a moment or a minute on this campus, when I'm on this campus that I'm not engaged with what is going on and kids. And as I'm seeing these guys pass by and I'm like pointing out some things that I need them to do and they're just looking at me. And, you know, one guy was wearing his hat, and the other one missed the trash can but then he saw I was over here and so he went back and picked it up. You know, and it's like, guys, come on. I'm sorry.



CAVANAUGH: I was walking around with you earlier in the morning and you're picking up trash from the ground.

COLLINS: This is such a beautiful place. Why should it be like, you know, littered with, you know, papers and stuff? But, you know, kids are going to be kids and, you know, it's a school campus but I – I have to say, overall, that our kids do a tremendous job, our staff, our custodial crew, everybody on campus does – they do a tremendous job in keeping us clean. I never heard Lincoln High School described like that from Joe and it's like, dang, Joe, that's great, you know? To me, you know, in coming here after having been in education for 42 years, coming from Long Beach – and I will add, Joe, that 44 of the former football players are in the NF – or, went to the NFL, that was second only to Long Beach Poly and I was principal there and so (audio interference) – okay? Enough for me, all right? But…

MARTINEZ: But you're obligated to get at least five more football players.

COLLINS: Hey, so we can kind of like jump up there, right.

MARTINEZ: Right. Right.

COLLINS: We're on the move.

MARTINEZ: Up the ante.

COLLINS: Yeah, we're on the move. But, I tell you, Maureen, after 42 years, I – and when I came down here, I don't know, it was maybe like 39 or so, I walked on this campus and it was still yet unfinished. But, I mean, I was like speechless for a long time because I had never been associated with anything even remotely as grand as this campus. And I told folks, being an old coach and runner myself, it's like, you know, I finally got to a Super Bowl. And this is it, at Lincoln High School. And as I said before, Joe, people can say what they want about, you know, teachers not having, you know, incentives. Everything a person could want, everything a child could want, because those folks who have come on campus from past classes, they are as awed as I was and they say, if I only had an opportunity to attend a school like this. And, I mean, I could sit here and talk to you for hours, and I'm not just saying it because you're here. But, I mean, it's a grand place to be.

CAVANAUGH: Let me get our…


CAVANAUGH: …listeners involved in this, if I could. If anyone wants to speak with principal Mel Collins or architect Joseph Martinez, the phone number's 1-888-895-5727. And what I would like to talk to you about, if I could, Mel, is Joseph mentioned four different academies on this campus. Tell me a little bit more about that.

COLLINS: Yeah, you know, and the design is great. Four separate schools. We have a 9th grade Center for Social Justice, which is the 500 building. We're sitting in front of the Center for the Arts. On the west end of campus is the Center for Public Safety. And the Center for Science and Engineering. And those all came about collectively after that Gompers-Lincoln group came together and said that here are maybe a hundred different career pathways or things that we would like to see and it was pared down, down, down and we kind of put it together and we came up with the four that we now have, okay.

CAVANAUGH: Let me stop you there because we do have to take a short break.


CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Mel Collins, who is principal here at Lincoln High School, architect Joseph Martinez who created the design for this really gorgeous new campus, and we are These Days. We're doing a special broadcast from the campus of Lincoln High School, and we will return in just a moment on KPBS.

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CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and we are doing a special broadcast today on These Days from the campus of Lincoln High School. My guests are Mel Collins. He's the principal at Lincoln High School. And architect Joseph Martinez created the beautiful design for the new Lincoln High School campus. And right – and I also want to remind our listeners that our number is 1-888-895-5727. Now, Mel, I had to interrupt you. You were right in the middle of telling us the very different kind of structure there is here on Lincoln in that there are four small academies the kids attend. So you came up with the number four, and what are they?

COLLINS: The number four. Center for the Arts, we're sitting in front of right now. And the 9th grade Center for Social Justice, as the name implies. The Center for Public Safety on the west end of campus, across from the Center for Science and Engineering.

CAVANAUGH: And all freshmen students have to enroll in the Center for Social Justice. Why is that?

COLLINS: Well, we thought at the time that, you know, if we can capture them as ninth graders and get them through in good order, nurture – nurture them, take care of them, that they would be more successful going into the tenth grade because that's when your highest dropout rate occurs. If we don't capture them in the ninth and tenth grade, we lose them altogether. So far, we are – or, we feel that we've been successful at that although we've had some bumps in the road that we have to smooth out. But, still, the concept is continuing and our present day junior class were the entering ninth graders in '07 so when that class graduates, when they graduate in '10-'11, June '011…


COLLINS: …then we can look at the data and say if we've done what we needed to do. Should we tweak it? Should we go in another direction? But we need at least four years.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. And, Joseph, I wanted to ask you, you know, when you were designing this campus, and you gave us a really good – really good overview of what was in your mind and what your goals were. Was the idea of how a physical space affects learning, was that part of what you were thinking about when you made this place?

MARTINEZ: Absolutely. We wanted to take every single opportunity and every single space and turning that into a learning opportunity. So here we are in front of the library and there's a great curved glass window which provides an intimate reading area for maybe three, four students, or a place to study one-on-one. We have classrooms that have natural light to come in and there's been many a study that shows when you have natural light versus artificial light that you – the grades are better, that there's more interest in education and learning. Likewise, the natural landscape, KTU & A, Tony Ortega, a fabulous landscape architect. I mean, look at the grounds. It feels like a college campus, and we wanted to make it collegiate. And so you take the four schools, which have as their bases the University of California A through G academic requirements integrated into the plan of the school, all that goes hand in hand with career path opportunity, upward mobility, and the big chance to provide those leadership opportunities into the next decade.

CAVANAUGH: And it – that is the feeling it has, is a college campus.

MARTINEZ: Many people say that.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. I'm wondering, Mel, you know, this – as – we're just rhapsodizing about this place and it is a beautiful campus. I'm wondering, though, there is a sort of dichotomy between learning here, and there are a lot of challenges in this neighborhood, a lot of different ways the kids live when they go home and the parents and the whole thing they have to deal with. So I'm wondering, how do you motivate kids when they're here to want to learn and to want to succeed.

COLLINS: You know, Maureen, it's a daily – it's not a struggle but a daily engagement with kids, and that's one of the ideas behind the four campuses also, is to break down this large number of 22, 2300 kids down into more manageable numbers of maybe 550 to 575 on each of the four campuses where teachers can have a closer contact with kids on a continuing, ongoing basis, not just for class but also that in-between time, that lunchtime, that before and after time that school is not in session. And we have found that that is the case because kids really feel a part of their—and we call them centers—and they're – it's the Center for Social Justice and so on. It's – What we're trying to do is create a feeling amongst our kids that this is a family group, this is someplace that they can come and get all – maybe all of what they might need. And if we don't have it, we can point them in the right direction and we are building on that. And how Joe and his architects designed the place, I mean, it's – it's phenomenal in addressing that challenge. And you have quads that are, you know, self-contained and fully functional, and you don't have to go anyplace to do anything, save for maybe physical education. Everything else is right there. And that works wonders.

CAVANAUGH: I wanted to say that we have a caller on the line. Her name is Joanne. She's calling from San Diego. And, Joanne, good morning. Welcome to These Days. Are you on the line?

JOANNE (Caller, San Diego): Yes, I am.

CAVANAUGH: Hi, Joanne. What's your question?

JOANNE: Well, I'm wondering if they're putting as much money and focus into education as sports. They mentioned in the history of the school 44 students had gone on to the NFL. I mean, (audio dropout) of that compared to the climate (audio dropout) there are thousands and thousands of students knowing that…


JOANNE: …professional sports have a very short career and so what do they fall back on?

CAVANAUGH: Got you, Joanne. Thank you for the call. And I think there was a little kidding around here that maybe was misunderstood. I think I'll let you take that question, Mel.

COLLINS: Well, you know, from the question, I'm assuming that more money is being spent on – the assumption is that more money is being spent on athletics, and that's certainly not the case because to be an athlete, you first have to be a student. And there's a clearance procedure in process and every day, we talk about if you're going to be an athlete, you have to be a student first. And our kids are getting the idea because if they don't maintain certain academic standards, they do not play, end of story. And recently, most recently, we had a coaches' meeting and whereas I do rely on coaches but I told them at the time, if we see students who are not functioning as they should on a day-to-day basis, going to class, taking care of business, then I will take their helmet, I will take their shoulder pads and put them in my office. That way I'm sure they won't play. And the coaches, all of them, applauded that because they've been telling kids. And that's the culture and the tone that we're trying to set.

CAVANAUGH: And I – One last question, if I may, because we're right up against time. You said that you need four years to assess the way the four academies are working out. But I'm wondering, you have had two entire school years now. What are Lincoln's test scores like?

COLLINS: Well, you know, I knew you would ask me that, Maureen…


COLLINS: …and not being a mathematical genius by any stretch of the imagination, brought some information with me. When we first came into existence, yes, we did struggle. For instance, on our API, which is our Academic Performance Index, in '07-'08, we had a 540, and our predicted growth target was 553. We exceeded that on an estimated range because all of the numbers are not in yet but we do have a predictor and we are somewhere between 577, which is much ahead of the 553, to a high of maybe 585. Our AYP in '07-'08 was zero of 22 indicators. And in this last testing barrage, our lowest estimate is that we have – we have accomplished 12 of 22. Now, again, the hard and fast data is not in, so that could, you know, that 12 number, that's the low number but it could be as high as all indicators met. On our CSTs in English, history, math and science, we grew. Our participation rate in our California high school exit exam was 99%. And when you say 99%, there were six students that we didn't capture and find on that testing date. So we have had some phenomenal growth internally. Not only do we have beautiful buildings but we have good, solid teaching going on inside those classrooms.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both so much for talking with us today. Mel Collins who is executive principal at Lincoln High School, and architect Joseph Martinez, who designed the new Lincoln High School campus. Thank you both for being here.

COLLINS: Thank you, Maureen.

MARTINEZ: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Our special broadcast from the campus of Lincoln High School continues in just a minute. We'll talk with a woman training to be one of the future leaders in education here in San Diego. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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