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November 28, 2021

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Global Business News

San Diego council member voices ‘grave concerns’ about Lincoln High struggles

A City Council member wrote a letter to San Diego Unified leadership Wednesday expressing “grave concerns” about leadership turnover at Lincoln High and other issues, including allegations of past misspending and sexual assaults at the school.

“Perpetual missteps have turned into a crisis that continues to impact our entire community,” wrote City Council member Monica Montgomery Steppe, whose jurisdiction includes Lincoln, in a letter that was published on Instagram and distributed to media outlets Wednesday.

“LHS has been a source of hope for our community, and we must improve it in order to have a full and thriving district.”

But school district officials said Montgomery Steppe’s letter ignores progress that has been made by Lincoln’s new principal, Stephanie Brown, who was picked by a committee of a dozen people in July 2019 to lead the school.

Under Brown’s leadership, Lincoln’s graduation rate rose from 80 percent in 2019 to 84 percent in 2020, according to state data. A record number of Lincoln students graduated early this year, the district said: 107 students, compared to 37 students in 2020 and 59 in 2019.

The school’s suspension rate also dropped from 8 percent in 2019 to 2 percent in 2020. The suspension rates for African-American students fell from more than 17 percent to 3 percent during those years.

“All of the hard work that the new principal … has been doing at Lincoln High School, it’s just been totally trashed and disrespected,” said San Diego Unified School Board Vice President Sharon Whitehurst-Payne in an interview Thursday. “Stephanie (Brown) has demonstrated she is a fine leader, and she is working to do some things that have never been done at that school.”

School Board President Richard Barrera, to whom Montgomery Steppe addressed her letter, also said Brown and her staff “are doing an amazing job.”

“We invite the council member and anyone else who cares about Lincoln to educate themselves on the work that is actually happening at the school and to ask what they can do to help,” Barrera said in a statement.

For years some local community advocates have argued the district has failed to stabilize the school and has not achieved equity for all students, particularly Black students. At Lincoln, 19 percent of the school’s 1,400 students are Black.

In her letter, Montgomery Steppe asked the district why the district “removed” Lincoln’s director, Jennifer Roberson, from the school, citing her concerns about the school’s frequent leadership turnover.

District spokeswoman Maureen Magee said Roberson had been asked to lead a group of administrators who are designing a new, bigger summer learning program this year to help students recover from the pandemic.

From 2014 to 2019, the school went through three principals. In 2019, the district removed the previous principal and three assistant principals for undisclosed reasons and appointed Brown.

“Having to have new leadership down there every year is telling us that they don’t care about us, that the things that happen or have happened at Lincoln are supposed to just quietly be forgotten, as always in neighborhoods where there are large percentages of people of color,” said Tasha Williamson, a community activist whose children went to Lincoln. “This has to stop.”

In her letter, Montgomery Steppe said Lincoln parents have told her office they feel the district has not listened to their concerns. She said local community groups have said they want to work with Lincoln but have not heard back from the district.

Montgomery Steppe also referenced news reports about multiple alleged sexual assaults at Lincoln over several years, some of which involved lawsuits. There were charges against at least one Lincoln staff member in one case.

Montgomery Steppe also referenced allegations of misspent funds meant for Lincoln. A Voice of San Diego story in March said San Diego Unified had improperly allocated $220,000 that Lincoln’s school site council had decided to spend on tutoring and textbooks in 2019.

A district spokeswoman said that what really happened was the $220,000 was never available for the site council to allocate in the first place, according to a review of the matter conducted by an outside law firm last year.

Hearing the concerns from community members and reading the news reports, Montgomery Steppe said she came to two conclusions that she wrote in bold in her letter: One, the district has not shown it can effectively hire people to provide stable leadership at the school, and two, the district “does not understand the historical, political, cultural and socioeconomic context of the school to lead the school and community effectively,” she said.

Whitehurst-Payne, whose district area includes Lincoln, said she thinks media outlets and others have been constantly pushing a negative narrative of Lincoln that Montgomery Steppe bought into.

“I just think that some lies have been promoted,” Whitehurst-Payne said. “Lincoln should not be treated this way, with every negative element and none of the positive elements being promoted.”

In the past, Whitehurst-Payne has also criticized the district’s handling of Lincoln.

In July 2019, Whitehurst-Payne voted against extending then-Superintendent Cindy Marten’s contract because she believed at the time that the district had not done enough to help Lincoln, she said then. Brown had just been appointed principal at the time.

Since then, Whitehurst-Payne said, several improvements have been made under Brown’s leadership. For instance, Brown has helped revamp the school’s career curriculum offerings and met with parents and community organizations to talk about how to improve the school, Whitehurst-Payne said.

“This is not the same school it was from even seven years ago,” she said.

Whitehurst-Payne added that she is disappointed that Montgomery Steppe had not called her, as a fellow politician and African-American woman, before giving her letter to media outlets.

Last week, Marten was confirmed as the nation’s new deputy education secretary.