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Overcoming Hardship To Get To School

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Brand new multimillion-dollar Lincoln High School is struggling with attendance and academic achievement. School officials have learned it takes more than a new building to overcome hardships that keep kids out of class.

— There are sometimes tears in their eyes as Martha Corrales and Stephanie Brown talk about their students.

The two women visit the homes of truant teenagers at Lincoln High School in Southeast San Diego to find out why they’re not coming to class.

Corrales recalled meeting one student’s family last fall. The young girl had missed several classes and was failing nearly every subject.

“So then I called the home and asked mom if I could come over because we needed to talk about what kind of supports we could put in place. When her older daughter said, tell her some of the things we face, she said: 'You know, she’s hungry all the time,’ ” Corrales said.

On the surface, Lincoln High School is one of the nicest schools in the county. The sprawling campus was built four years ago to replace a small, 50–year-old building. But dig a little deeper into the lives of some of the students who attend this school and the stories of hardship emerge.

Corrales and Brown described another home visit to find out why a 16-year-old boy wasn’t coming to school. Corrales made the visit, but couldn't tell the story without crying. She asked Brown to describe the details.

“This child did not have his father, his father passed away and he actually witnessed his father dying. We began to understand why the student was struggling in school. He’s depressed,” Brown said.

Another student misses three days of school every week because he accompanies his dad to dialysis, by bus.

“We have many many stories like that where kids unfortunately miss school because they have a situation at home and basic needs not met and its impossible for them to be here," Brown said.

Before the old Lincoln school was demolished, about 300 students attended. When the new, much larger, school opened its doors in 2007, 2,300 students enrolled. The state of the art, $120 million campus did what it was supposed to do – attract kids to school.

But keeping them in class and making sure they pass state and federal exams has proven more difficult.

Lincoln has been put on notice by federal officials for its failing grades in English and math; it also has one of the lowest attendance rates in the San Diego Unified School District.

So Executive Principal Mel Collins created an intervention team. Corrales, the school’s operations manager, and Brown, a math teacher, were to visit the homes of the 100 students most often truant.

Visiting the homes and making a personal connection is most important, Collins said.

“I think if you were to ask most kids on high school campuses, or on school campuses, and you were to say, 'Hey, why do you come?' Most would say it’s about him or her,” Collins said.

The campus is surrounded by poor and working class neighborhoods. More than 80 percent of the students at Lincoln are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program, according to government statistics.

That means most families live at, or near, the poverty level.

Kids walk or take a city bus to school. But even buying a bus pass can be an obstacle to getting to class.

Corrales and Brown often pay for bus passes for students with their own money. In fact, the two women and Collins have bought groceries, clothes, health insurance, even paid for college-entry fees.

Collins said there are signs the intervention is working. Attendance has increased over last year and the school's Academic Performance is slowly rising too.

But change may be too slow. Collins' and Corrales' positions are both being eliminated in the next school year because of budget cuts.

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