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A Story About Success, Failure And The School At The Center

Audio

Aired 4/21/11

The KPBS documentary, Building Expectations, focuses on Lincoln High School -- one of the most expensive campuses in the county, built in one the poorest neighborhoods. Lincoln was supposed to provide a route to college for their kids - the majority of whom live in poverty. But as Lincoln’s first freshman class prepares for graduation, few are destined for college. We'll discuss the expectations set for Lincoln high school and whether the school is living up to them.

Lincoln Principal Mel Collins making rounds on campus.
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Above: Lincoln Principal Mel Collins making rounds on campus.

Education is the key to lift students out of poverty - but ironically, poverty is one of the biggest hurdles to getting an education.

KPBS reporter Joanne Faryon has produced an eye opening documentary that really cuts to the heart of why a new state-of-the-art school in Southeast San Diego is struggling to meet its promise of qualifying more students for college.

Guest

KPBS Reporter and documentary filmmaker Joanne Faryon

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: You're listening to These Days on KPBS, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Education is the key to lifting students out of poverty. But ironically, poverty is one of the biggest hurdles to getting an education. KPBS reporter, Joanne Faryon, has produced an eye opening documentary that really cuts to the heart of why a new start of the art school in southeast San Diego is struggling to meet its promise of qualifying more students for college. This is a story that needs to be part of the whole debate over how to improve education in San Diego, and we'd love to get your comments on this too, so remember, you can always reach us by calls in at 1-888-895-5727. So Joanne, thanks so much for coming in.

FARYON: Thanks for having me.

ST. JOHN: So tell us about Lincoln high school which is the school that you focused on. It has quite a history in San Diego, right?

FARYON: Right. So Lincoln is in the heart of Lincoln park. I think most of our listeners are probably familiar with the old Lincoln high school. It was well known for a number of athletes that graduated from Lincoln. It was a small school. It was about 50 years old when it was finally torn down. Voters actually passed a proposition that allowed a bond measure so that the county could raise enough money to build a new school. So in the last year of the old Lincoln high school, there were about 300 students still attend, they were slowly phasing out the school class by class, and then everybody in the area was sent to other high schools. They said, okay, now we're gonna build this new school, we're gonna tear it down, and in the meantime for a number of years, kids in the neighborhood went to different schools. Finally four years ago, about four years ago, the new Lincoln opened up. It's a beautiful campus, it looks similar to a college campus. It cost about a hundred and $29 million, and 1 of the surprising things, when the new Lincoln opened its doors, it did contract quite literally hundreds -- well, thousands of students, more than 2000 students of there was a bit of a concern would everybody come back after being dispersed into the county, and they did. So now we're looking at the high school. Attendance hovers at around 2000, I believe the school was constructed for up to 2700 students.

ST. JOHN: Okay. So now this is a school that kind of represents very much the dynamics faces schools in our education system now, is that why you pick today?

FARYON: Well, I think schools and our society, really. Of we were hooking at a number of things in education, one of them being attendance. This is a school that in terms of ranking in the San Diego unified school district has one of the lowest attendance rates in that district when it comes to high schools. So it was one of the reasons we wanted to go look at this school and sort of find out the reasons why. In doing more research what we learned was this school, I think, represents a lot about what we're talking about across the country. I think a lot of people are familiar with the documentary Waiting for Superman. And that documentary really focused on school reform. And it looked a lot at teachers, what are we doing in our schools, our curriculum, etc. I think what we wanted to add to this debate was the notion of community reform. And this is it what I mean by that. When you look at Lincoln, this is it a school in a poor community. We know that more than 80 percent of the kids who go to Lincoln are eligible for the free reduced lunch program. That puts them at a fairly low income level. So I think what we haven't necessarily been talking about are what are some of the problems, the issues that kids face in attending school? So we can talk about two different things of one is maybe school reform, you know, are we laying off teachers issue are our classes getting bigger? And Lincoln, like a lot of the schools in the county, are facing that same thing, the budget cutbacks that we've all been hearing so much about. But it's facing other challenges that I think communities across the country also face, is what about the community outside of the school? What's happening with these kids?

ST. JOHN: And of course the fact that it was a brand-new state of the art school raises the question of how much -- how big a difference does that make when you're faced with all these challenges.

FARYON: Exactly. The idea that if they built it, the students would come, but did that necessarily mean that they would be successful?

ST. JOHN: Right. So you have talked in your report about how it has had some successes, and some -- I don't know if you want to call them failures, but hasn't military expectations. What are some of the factors contributing to that?

FARYON: Well, in terms of success, as I said earlier, this school opened up and kids did come. The community supported this school by sending their children there. We hear a lot in the media about test scores, AP aye, etc, and no child left behind. So thought as some background, AP I, academic performance index is a measure by which -- the state uses to measure performance in schools. And basically they're based largely on test scores. So when we look at Lincoln, it's far below the desired AP I. I believe 800 is the magic number. So they want schools to reach this score of 800. Lincoln is in the low six hundreds. But it's made some gains of since opening in the last few years, it's gone from the high five hundreds, 580 something, to over 600. So it's small, but it's getting better. And that's always a measure of success.

ST. JOHN: The right direction. Yes.

FARYON: Exactly. So in terms of those state test scores, it's getting better. There are also federal exam, these proficiency exams, and the federal government wants to know, what percentage of kids in this high school are proficient in language arts, what percentage are proficient in math on these federal measures. That's where Lincoln is not doing so well. It's, I believe one in 4, 1 in three, in terms of language arts proficient, and math proficiency. That means because this school has, for the last couple of years, not been meeting those requirements, it's been put on what's called program improvement. So that means it's sort of their -- they have been put on notice by the federal government that, look, you're not doing what you're supposed to be doing. Also they do struggle with attendance. Attendance has actually declined 678 their moment has declined since first opening their doors. Schools tent to have -- high schools, what happens, attendance tends to drop off from element or, middle and high school.

ST. JOHN: And of course that's crucial because funding is tight.

FARYON: Absolutely. So the fewer kids that show up, the less money the district receives. In this case, this school's attendance hovers about 93, 94 percent. Compare that to a school across the county in, say, the Poway school district, there's a high school there, their attendance is over 97 percent. It's actually very meaningful when you're talking about 2000 students.

ST. JOHN: That's quite a large number of students that aren't showing up to school, yeah.

FARYON: Exactly. So these are the kinds of things the school struggles with. At the same time, though, they're improving, they're getting better. And their sort of philosophy has been under the leadership of executive principle Mel Collins, let's try to find out why these kids are struggling. Let's try to find out why they're not coming to school, and then meet with their families, meet with these kids one by one, that's try to help them one by one. So I want to stalk about a success story in terms of how that philosophy is playing itself out. We went to a School Board meeting a few weeks ago, and this was a San Diego unified School Board, and therapy a number of parents and students there to basically plead to the board, don't lay off our teachers. And it wasn't just Lincoln high school. It was schools really from all over the district. One of the students there does go to Lincoln, his name is Marcos Tovar, and he told his story, that he began Lincoln when he was a freshman, and at the time he was in a gang, he had been in a gang, really, since elementary school, it's the only life he knew, it's what he saw on the other hand him. He had a .67 GPA in his freshman year, and basically he was failing everything. And he got excelled. The school suspended him. But he said, you know, I got a call from a teacher, and this teacher, John Ross, and principle Mel Colin, he said they must have seen something in me, because they decided to give me another chance. And they put me in a special program where there are, like, a handful of students. And for ten weeks, [CHECK AUDIO] he couldn't leave for lunch, he was in this room until he could catch up. And they said this is it your chance. If you miss three classes, you're out, you're done. So he decided to stay in this program, and a year later, he started seeing his marks go up. It really changed him. And I want to play you a clip from Marcos because he describes seeing his marks improve, and you could tell that as his marks got better, something in Marcos changed as well.

NEW SPEAKER: I seen thea the beginning might have soft more year, which was tenth grade, it was a couple Bs, a couple C, but to me, that was like [CHECK AUDIO] who could possibly have a B? Like me? Really? Like even when people would see my grade, like, what do you have? I barely have a 2.3. They're like what? That's like a 4.0 for you. But really it wasn't, but to me, in my eyes, it really was because I had never had those kind of grades because since little I had never had them.

ST. JOHN: So for him, that was an amazing success.

FARYON: Oh, amazing. And not only this, but let me to you to add now to Marcos' story, he has a 4.0. He's going to college. He is absolutely going to college. So again, it was approaching the student, one by one, saying, you know, what's it gonna take to make sure you succeed?

ST. JOHN: And one of the other things you mentioned to me about the success was people really thought there was gonna be chaos because there were gangs, there was violence, these are not the sort of things that may measure, of course, but it's the sort of things that a school is up against.

FARYON: Absolutely. And Mel cons issue the principle of the school, spoke about this. Of this is a neighborhood, that it's no secret, terror gangs surrounding this school, rival gangs, and there was someone whose name Mel Collins did not mention, that there would be chaos on this campus. That suddenly you're bringing in kids from all over the community and you're going to end up with a lot of problems. That didn't happen. You walk on this campus, and first of all, you see school security guards everywhere. And also you see principles and teachers, they are patrolling this campus. It's neat, it's tidy, it's disciplined.

ST. JOHN: So that is the mark of success. At least as there's an environment where you can learn.

FARYON: Absolutely.

ST. JOHN: But in terms of these test scores, and in terms of qualifying for college, how far is it not meeting those goals?

FARYON: So the original expectation from the community and also from School Board members, there was a community that was put together sort of in this transition period between old Lincoln and new Lincoln. The expectation was that by this year, the first graduating class, 85 percent of the students would be college ready. That could -- that means that they would have completed the curriculum that allowed them to apply for state college.

ST. JOHN: That's a pretty high expectation, isn't it, for any school?

FARYON: It is, and it's actually about double what the county averages from any high school, so this committee that was formed, this transition committee, it was something that Mel Collins of told was his job. This is part of what you have to do. I'll tell you, last year, 16, 16, 16 percent of the graduating crass at Lincoln had the college requirement in terms of the curriculum. So they're not meeting --

ST. JOHN: A long way to go.

FARYON: Absolutely. Yeah.

ST. JOHN: So what is it that's stopping them from making progress on that front.

FARYON: Well, they've got a couple of hurd -- well, more than a couple of hurdles, but one of the main problems is they don't have a main feeder middle school. So I think a lot of parents out there, if your kids are in middle school or going to high school, probably what you are familiar with, is the idea that in middle school, those kids are probably visiting the high school, the teachers between the schools have a lot of discussion, the middle school's preparing them for their neighborhood high school. So those teachers know exactly what those kids need to know before they get to high school. Lincoln doesn't have a feeder program like that. In fact, they're taking kids from 56 different middle schools. So you have all of these kids coming in at different levels. In fact, one day when we were shooting, our crew was down at the school for the documentary, one student showed up, he had a 1.3 GPA, it was his fourth year of high school, and he was looking for a school. He had been kicked out of other schooling he was looking for a school. These are the kids who are showing up at their door step. So first of all, once you get them in the high school, you have to get them caught up, because you don't know what level they're at.

ST. JOHN: Isn't that true though of many high schools that they're taking kids from a lot of different middle schools?

FARYON: No, actually it's not.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

FARYON: What most schools try to do is you sort of cultivate having 2 or 3 middle schools that feed into your high school.

ST. JOHN: And expectations stay the same.

FARYON: Exactly. And that is how I have to say, next queer it's going to change because they've got a new area student who is working on making sure they have a strong middle school, feeder school. The other thing, is this the overruling problem, and working on this documentary, it's just what I have to say just overwhelmed me, the students that are not showing up, the students that are failing, a lot of them are coming from poverty, and obstacles that I think many of us find just unimaginable. And I'll give you an example. For the first time this year, the school made a list of the 100 students who were most truant, and because they were must truant, they were failing. And they decided, let's go visit the homes of all one helped students, and they started at the beginning of the alphabet, A and on. And two women, a teacher named Stephanie Brown, Martha Corales, were the two women that were gonna go door to door. And even what Fay found surprised them. Stories about poverty. For example, they went into one home, and the reason that the young man wasn't going to school [CHECK AUDIO] and take him to dialysis three days a week. So he was missing school three days a week. Another young man, his father had just died. He was grief stricken. He wasn't showing up at school. He needed counseling. He needed some kind of support system. Another home they went into, quite literally, the family was a single mom, that weekend, they had gone without food. There was just no food in the house. Soap these were the stories they were hearing in terms of why kids weren't there. So I want to play you a clip, now, this is ste-18 brown, and he describes one of the home visits her and Martha went on.

NEW SPEAKER: Martha and I went on a home visit about a month ago, and it was pretty dire. There was no flooring in the home, there was no furniture in the home. There -- I would question whether or not they even had running water. We've been on another home visit where it wasn't in a liveable condition, and we knew the family was living that way. And the smell in the house was so strong, it was difficult for us to be in there. So we know that our kids have a lot of financial hardships, their parents have a lot of, you know, financial hardships, and it makes it difficult.

ST. JOHN: And I think that's one of the strongest things about your documentary, is you get to really hear the real stories behind these numbers as to why it is kids aren't turns up for school. We're speaking with Joanne Faryon, KPBS reporter, and her documentary, building expectations, a portrait of Lincoln high school is airing tomorrow night at 9:00 o'clock on KPBS television. So why are so many kids at Lincoln failing exams and not finding their way to college? Is it poverty or is it something else?

FARYON: Well, I think if you talk to staff at Lincoln, a lot of it is poverty. I mean, I think that's the big question, really. So we went to an expert to ask that very question. So I want to talk about doctor Joe Johnson, and he is from the national center of urban school transformation at San Diego state, and what his center does is they actually look across the country for urban schools in poor neighborhoods that are succeeding of so if we know what some schools are succeeding, maybe that'll tell us why other schools are failing. So this is what Joe Johnson finds, he says when you go into these schools that are doing well, and by doing well that means that the kids are graduating college ready. They have these options available to them. They don't just look at test scores, that look at a number of things. But when you look at these successful school, what is it that they're doing? And he says the biggest thing they're doing is individuals going out and engaging with each student one by one. Exactly really what Lincoln is attempting to do right now. It's that engagement, it's getting to know who these kids are, getting to know their families and why they're not at school or why they're having trouble at school, then you can say you can put in place the resources, you can make the changes you need, the systemic changes to say how do we make sure kids come to school? One of the single most important barriers to school in some of these neighborhoods is transportation. Now, ironically when school districts, their budgets are cut, what do they cut? There they cut school buss, they cut school bus passes. [CHECK AUDIO] 2 or 3 miles away coming to this school. 6 or 7 high school kids at that school have cars. We know that in a lot of other neighborhoods and a lot of other schools, their parking lots are packed because a lot of kids have cars of first of all, this isn't that kind of school. Secondly, for a lot of families, even buying a bus pas, [CHECK AUDIO] are using their own money to buy them bus pass. Joe Johnson talks a lot about transportation. And I want to set up a story that he tells. Because I want to play this clip. We went to one school in New York City where the school couldn't figure out why this one kid wasn't showing up at school, because they knew the bus pass went right by -- the school bus went right by his house, and he thought, why is this kid not coming to school 678 so the teach went to the boy's house.

ST. JOHN: Instead of just assuming that the kid was just lazy or had bad things going on, they went to find out of that's the key in the? ?

FARYON: They went to find out, so the teacher had a heart to heart with this student. And here's Joe Johnson describing why that boy wouldn't get on the school bus.

NEW SPEAKER: The bus route was such that his school bus travelled daily right in front of the street corner where his mom worked. And -- and so the kids all knew his mom, and they knew approximate what she was doing out on the corner, and so they teased him. And he didn't want to endure that teasing, so he decided that he just wouldn't ride the bus. But he didn't have any other safe way to get to school, so he wasn't go coming to school.

ST. JOHN: And of course of the implication is that his mother was a prostitute right?

FARYON: Absolutely, yes.

ST. JOHN: Okay.

FARYON: And so you know what the school did? They changed the bus route. They changed the bus route so one kid wouldn't be teased and so he would get on that bus and get to school. Those are the kinds of things that successful schools are doing to make sure kids come to school.

ST. JOHN: And again, Lincoln is doing some of those things, but when you think, you've got 2000 students, you have cutbacks --

FARYON: Exactly.

ST. JOHN: Every individual story requires a different solution, what a challenge, yes.

FARYON: And what Martha Corales, the administrator, one of the women who goes out on these home visit, she worked for the school district back during the transformation between the old Lincoln and the new Lincoln and she went out into the community, and she said to patients, she gave them the same promise, you know what? Send your kids to Lincoln, when they graduate they'll go to college. And she said, you know, I believe that. And she still believes that. But she said this is the problem, we've got the resources in class, we've got what it takes, we've got this great curriculum, we've got the rigor, but we've got to get them here. We've got to make sure they're here and they're engaged. And that's sort of the missing link right now in terms of success.

ST. JOHN: And what about cuts we're hearing so much about? How is that gonna affect Lincoln.

FARYON: Well, like a lot of other schools, there have been lay off notices sent to roughly 30 percent of the teaching staff at Lincoln. And actually we're sort of -- twisted story, weird ending be Martha Corales, one of the women who goes out to try to get kids to come to school, her job is being eliminated.

ST. JOHN: We've heard that actually many of the cuts are gonna fall heaviest on schools in the lower income neighborhoods.

FARYON: Yes, and also Mel Collins, the principle who was brought into Lincoln to help achieve success, that position is also being eliminated. The school does have other principles, he's the executive principle, so the funding for that position has also run its course.

ST. JOHN: So it's a mixed bag, and it really sounds like you've started to tease out some of the issues behind what makes a successful school. And obviously bricks and mortar is part of it, you've talked about really some of the success, but it really comes down to I guess you're saying the individual. If you have a message from this documentary that's airing tomorrow, what would you say it is?

FARYON: I think it's really people, people helping other people. It's really getting to know these personal stories, it's really trying to find out why, and ultimately is it -- when we talk about school reform versus community reform, what is our responsibility as a society to making sure all kids get to school safely? And get a good education? So I think we have to look at community reform as well.

ST. JOHN: Takes a deeper look, really, yes. Good, thank you so much, Joanne Faryon, and the documentary, building expectations, a portrait of Lincoln high school, airs tomorrow night, that's Friday night at 9:00 o'clock on KPBS television. Very worth watching of stay with us, coming up on These Days, in the next segment, we'll be looking at how the Navy's expansion of trading activities on the silver strand affects the community and the waters off our shores.

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