An experiment widely viewed as one of Tacoma Public Schools’ biggest success stories is about to come to an end.
Lincoln Center — the six-year-old school-within-a-school at Lincoln High School — will disappear after next month.
In its place will be a schoolwide program designed to incorporate some of the most successful features of Lincoln Center.
Lincoln High 2.0, as some are calling it, will include a longer school day for all students, time built into the middle of the day for academic help and learning life skills, and teaching teams focused on smaller student groups that will help teachers get to know students better.
There also will be an emphasis on more rigorous courses and monthly enrichment Fridays — field trips, college visits and other activities designed to expose kids at the high-poverty school to life outside their East Side and South End neighborhoods.
The school day for all Lincoln students will run from 7:35 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. — 70 minutes longer than the standard high school day. Some programs, such as drama, will be offered as after-school activities until 4:30 p.m.
Some teachers will arrive later in the day and stay until the end of the extended school day. On Fridays, school will end at the standard 2:05 p.m.
“We are taking what we learned from Lincoln Center and Lincoln High School, and coming up with a blend of the two,” said Pat Erwin, Lincoln’s principal for 10 years and one of the founders of Lincoln Center in 2008.
Some measures of success at Lincoln Center are striking. Its graduation rate was 95 percent last year; the graduation rate for Lincoln as a whole was 66 percent — although that figure could rise with new data that’s been reported by the school district to the state.
“I’ve seen a shift,” said Brandon Ervin, a career counselor at Lincoln. “We have one mission, one vision: to graduate our kids and get them to college.”
He said the school has come a long way from when he graduated from Lincoln in 2001. That year, he recalled, only about seven students went on to college. Now, it’s not unusual to find kids at Lincoln with big plans for the future.
“Our teachers here push us to the highest level,” said Lincoln Center senior Kayla Mclean, who plans to attend the University of Washington after graduation, with an ultimate goal of medical school. “If we get knocked down, they are there to help us. It feels like family.”
“Teachers here see our potential before we do,” said Lincoln Center senior Haniyyah Dixon, who will study communications and fashion merchandising at Washington State University.
“We were not used to seeing students from Lincoln be successful,” added Lincoln Center classmate Tae McKenzie, who will double-major in business and public relations at UW. But she said the factor that has changed the equation for her and others is “the support and dedication Lincoln has for us.” That support includes things like weekend workshops that offer help with college and scholarship applications.
Lincoln Center senior Mikala Davis said some students initially voiced strong opinions against the changes coming next year.
“They felt like they were being forced into it,” she said.
But Haniyyah said most of the skeptics have come around, once they learned how the new schedule will work.
In some ways, Lincoln Center has become a victim of its own success. With about 42 percent of Lincoln’s more than 1,300 students enrolled in Lincoln Center, the program has become too large to run as a school-within-a-school, Erwin said.
In its current state — with a school day that runs until 5 p.m., plus Saturday programs and summer school — Erwin believed it was unsustainable. Staff burnout became a threat.
“We have gone as far as we could with Lincoln Center,” Erwin said. “We needed to find a balance, a happy medium.”
Erwin is keenly aware of two private charter school organizations that have targeted Tacoma’s East Side as a possible future home. In the face of that competition, Erwin said he wants to make changes that will retain both students and teaching talent at Lincoln.
Planning began in February. Erwin surveyed his teaching staff, asking how they wanted to move forward.
A six-teacher team — three from Lincoln Center, and three from Lincoln High School — went to work. Lots of ideas were thrown on the table — including a new name for the school, Lincoln Preparatory High School. Even though 55 percent of the staff liked it, Erwin decided that wasn’t enough support to make the change.
Nearly 93 percent of the staff who filled out an anonymous survey — 63 members — approved the final model for the new Lincoln. Five others turned thumbs down on the idea. Critics point to a divide between Lincoln Center and non-Lincoln Center staff that has not served the school well. But supporters are hopeful that the new model will bridge that gap.
“It will finally have us all on the same page,” said Peter Briggs, a non-Lincoln Center music teacher who served on the six-member planning team. “There’s excitement that we will all be doing the same work, on the same teams, for the same kids. We look at what is best for kids. That’s what gets us excited.”
An article in the school newspaper explained the coming changes, and Lincoln held a meeting for parents earlier this month. Two more are planned before the start of the 2014-15 school year. Lincoln parents will receive letters this summer explaining the changes. Similar letters will go to families of incoming ninth-graders.
Nicole Portillo, a Lincoln junior, signed up this year for an Advanced Placement government class taught by Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a Lincoln Center teacher. Portillo is not a Lincoln Center student. But she said she wanted the challenge and wanted to be more prepared for college.
“In the beginning, it was a struggle,” Portillo said. “He makes us work. But I knew it was coming.”
She believes next year’s longer school day might prove a hardship for some students, who have work or family obligations after school.
But she thinks that in the long run, more study time will benefit most students.
Kammie McCauley, also a Lincoln junior, said she’s not a fan of the coming longer school day.
“It might make the dropout rate go up, because kids won’t want to stay,” she said.
But her mom, Shellie McCauley, feels differently: “I think it’s perfect. There will be more time to learn, more time to get stuff done and more time to get help.”
Erwin said he has heard positive feedback from families so far. But he said if parents don’t like the new plan, they can enroll their student at another high school.
Lincoln 2.0 is still a work in progress, with a final budget, a transportation plan and other details yet to be worked out. But last week, the Tacoma School Board gave its blessing.
“When people ask me what my goals are for Lincoln, I tell them my goal is to beat Bellarmine,” said Erwin, a member of Bellarmine Preparatory School’s class of 1983. He acknowledges that Lincoln will likely never best the private Catholic school at golf or tennis.
But when it comes to academics, he’s ready to put his Lincoln Abes up against Bellarmine’s Lions.
“I want Lincoln to be the best high school in Tacoma,” he said.Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 debbie.cafazzo@ thenewstribune.com