E. Tammy Kim

High-poverty public school tries charter-style reforms

In Tacoma, Washington, an ambitious experiment in college-prep education faces internal opposition

TACOMA, Wash. — Davon White and Jose Arciniega, best friends since the third grade, grew up down the street from each other on the east side of town. White and his little sister were raised by a determined but frustrated mother who’d had him when she was a teenager and struggled to earn a living. Arciniega’s parents, immigrants from Mexico, worked in construction and at a tire shop.

The boys played and studied together all the way through Stewart Middle School, which White describes as “horrible — we had the worst [test] scores.” Four years ago, in the spring of their eighth-grade year, they charted their next steps. The closest high school was Lincoln, but their moms, put off by its guns-and-drugs reputation, enrolled them at a rival school located in a more affluent neighborhood.

A few weeks into ninth grade, White, who hoped to become the first in his family to attend college, heard about improvements at Lincoln and went to check them out. He found that the school had opened Lincoln Center, an experiment in extended hours and rigorous course work, for about 350 of its 1,500 students. The pilot school within a school hosted study hall until 5 p.m., mandated advanced-placement and honors courses and offered college counseling and Saturday enrichment.

White decided to transfer to Lincoln Center and eventually persuaded Arciniega, who was nearly flunking out of school, to join him. This fall, they started college — White on a full scholarship at the University of Washington, Arciniega at Tacoma Community College.

In Lincoln Center’s first six years, parents and graduates say, it transformed the prospects of its student body and raised expectations in the surrounding neighborhood. Its first senior class had a 95 percent graduation rate, compared with 61 percent in the larger Lincoln student body. According to the school, 82 percent enrolled in college.

Lincoln High School serves an unusually diverse student population. Eighty-two percent qualify for free and reduced-priced meals.
Joe Mabel

The idea for Lincoln Center came from Pat Erwin, who had taken over as principal of Lincoln High School in 2004. A technocratic reformer, he’d been impressed by the gains of high-profile charter networks, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and Harlem Children’s Zone, that serve very low-income, mostly minority student populations. Lincoln Center would similarly focus on college prep and ground its method in attachment theory — the idea that “kids need relationships to multiple adults in their lives.” But unlike many charters, Lincoln Center was open to all: This would not be a tracking program for high-achieving gifted kids or a remedial path for those who had fallen behind.

Now, Erwin is applying a modified version to the entire school. Beginning this year, all Lincoln High School students are expected to take honors courses and adhere to an extended-hours schedule — 7:30 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. or, optionally, 4:20 p.m. — four days a week. On select Fridays and Saturdays, they can go in for career advice, museum trips and college visits. It’s an expensive, controversial experiment that has drawn opposition from Lincoln staff. Yet many hope that the Lincoln Center model can succeed and survive on a grand scale.

Hometown pride

Lincoln, built in 1913, is the only high school in east Tacoma, a port city on the salty inlet that gives Washington its distinctive shape. Those familiar with Tacoma celebrate its mix of immigrants, charming Proctor district and arty downtown, home to a Dale Chihuly glass museum. But others think of it as a low-income military outcrop and the gritty, industrial locus of the stinky “Tacoma aroma.”

In some east-side neighborhoods, the median household income dips below $20,000 per year. In the 2012-13 school year, 82 percent of Lincoln’s diverse student body (26 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 21 percent black, 20 percent Asian and 2.4 percent American Indian) qualified for free and reduced-priced meals — a program for kids whose families are at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level.

Erwin grew up in Tacoma and exudes a sincere, if obligatory, hometown pride: His wife, Marilyn Strickland, happens to be the mayor. As an education advocate and the founder of a literacy program, he led a public middle school in town before taking the job at Lincoln, his mother’s alma mater. When he visited his future workplace in the spring of 2004, “It was mayhem,” he said. “It was like a bad high school in a bad movie about a bad high school.” Students roamed the halls instead of going to class and seemed to expect very little of themselves and their school. 

In 2008, with funding from the school district and private foundations, Erwin established Lincoln Center. He persuaded five teachers from the existing staff to join and publicized the move at parent nights, through the local newspaper and at nearby middle schools.

‘We’re a full-service school. When kids come in at 14, we don’t just ship them off when they turn 18. We’re going to make sure they’re successful until they’re 22.’

Jennifer Zamira

teacher, Lincoln High School

The first year, 100 students were willing (or convinced by their parents) to abide the extended schedule and difficult course work. Each successive year, more students have opted in. But Erwin knew from charter-school data that improving achievement wasn’t just about extra hours. Discipline came first: no more skipping class, avoiding work or making a ruckus outside classrooms. Book learning would be paired with developing the “soft skills” emphasized by the KIPP model: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism and curiosity. Erwin and the Lincoln Center teachers got to know the students and their families and identified the challenges at home that might affect their education.

While charter-school advocates often note the benefits of starting from scratch with new teachers, Lincoln Center utilized longtime staff and made new hires in keeping with the union contract. Since 2012, Lincoln alumnus Jon Kitna, former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, has taught math and coached football. The school’s AP government teacher, Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, was among 40 teachers to win the national Milken Educator Award. And Sarah Ketelsen, a math teacher, recently drove a student nine hours round trip to visit Whitworth College in Spokane.

Recent Lincoln graduate Ha-Vy Le at home with her mother, The Le.
E. Tammy Kim

All this has instilled a fierce loyalty in Lincoln students, who staunchly defend its reputation. When a Lincoln Center teacher was arrested last spring for sexually abusing several boys in her classes, many enrolled in the program dismissed it as an isolated, unfortunate circumstance. The teacher is now serving jail time.

Recent statistics seem to back up the program’s impact: On last year’s standardized state exams in reading and writing, the pass rate for Lincoln Center students was 15 percentage points higher than for the student body as a whole, according to Erwin.

“The Tacoma School District, in some of their more innovative schools, like the Lincoln project, they’re doing great things,” said Randy Dorn, head of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. “I’ve tried to stress to everybody that to close the opportunity gap … we need more time with those kids. Some of that is educational experience, not just academic experience. All of that takes extra resources.” 

At Lincoln, some of those resources have come from Erwin himself. He estimates that he spent about $10,000 in the last school year on books, snacks, school supplies and holiday meals for his students. It’s a level of generosity that may be unsustainable, but it reflects the school’s mission-driven culture, Lincoln Center teachers say.

“We’re a full-service school,” said Jenny Zamira, one of the first instructors to have joined Lincoln Center. “When kids come in at 14, we don’t just ship them off when they turn 18. We’re going to make sure they’re successful until they’re 22” — that is, all the way through college.

Which is why, in late August, she found herself meeting again with Ha-Vy Le, a 2014 Lincoln Center graduate whom she’d closely mentored throughout the previous school year. “I wanted to make sure she was ready for school,” Zamira said. “We talked about last-minute details, like whether she’d bring her car to Seattle.”

Le, an aspiring fashion designer, received a scholarship of $33,000 per year to attend Seattle Pacific University, a private Christian college. She had always been academically driven, Le said, though neither of her parents, immigrants from Vietnam, had much formal education. Hers would be a stereotypical immigrant success story, except that Le nearly flunked out of high school just before the end. “I had a lot of troubles senior year, a lot of family stuff,” she said.

‘I believe our teaching staff is the best in our school district. We’re very deliberate.’

Pat Erwin

principal, Lincoln High School

“Her GPA went from 3.9 to 3.3 to 3.1 to 1.9. We didn’t know what was going on,” Erwin said. In the winter, he launched a scheme with her classmates. “They said Ha-Vy will do anything for fashion, so I got a whole group together and took them to Totokaelo” — the expensive Seattle boutique where his daughter, Maura Erwin, works in sales — “and a coffee shop and bookshop downtown. I was getting them to fantasize about being in college.”

The trip helped bring Le back to school and gave Erwin the idea for a weekly summer book club that would immerse recent graduates in “college cultural awareness.” Le, White and a dozen other students read The Tools, a motivational book by two prominent Hollywood shrinks; got advice from Lincoln Center alumni; and watched classic movies, like The Godfather,” that they’d never seen but might hear about from future classmates.

At Lincoln Center, Le said, “You got more help, and it was convenient. When you’re at home, you don’t know what to do … We were all struggling in our own way — at school or home.”


To prepare for the school’s next phase — what Erwin calls “Lincoln 2.0” — the teachers and counselors met for summer training. They reviewed a 42-page instructional handbook for the new school year, which lays out mission statements and detailed teaching models. “I believe our teaching staff is the best in our school district,” Erwin said. “We’re very deliberate.”

But the new Lincoln faces dissent from within. In early September, three employees — teacher Sheila Gavigan and guidance counselors Kathleen McGatlin and Truby Pete — filed a complaint alleging that the school’s administration has repeatedly pushed out low-performing students in order to inflate its graduation rate. The complainants say that over the past few years, and before this school year in particular, they have felt pressured to divert 76 struggling kids to the district’s Reengagement Center, an alternative school run by former Lincoln co-principal Greg Eisnaugle, for students at high risk of dropping out.

Lincoln's leaders, the staff members maintain, have misrepresented the rigor of honors classes and punished teachers and counselors who aren’t “Lincoln Center promoters.” “Even though they’ve decided to expand schoolwide, the goal they’ve established for guidance counselors is to police the students and make sure the slots are available for the best-performing students,” said Joan Mell, the complainants’ attorney.

Principal Pat Erwin has led Lincoln High School since 2004.
E. Tammy Kim

Erwin denies this charge: “The district and state have guidelines that the Reengagement Center follows, and if we have kids that fit, we let them know about the opportunities available. I can’t make a kid go, nor can I tell Greg [Eisnaugle] to accept them.” While it is true that, in the last academic year, Lincoln sent an above-average number of students to the Re-engagement Center, Eisnaugle said the numbers are incomplete. He emphasized the high-poverty level of Lincoln’s student body and the poor performance of feeder middle schools.

Tacoma Public Schools has promised to investigate whether Lincoln’s transfer practices “may be depriving certain student populations of their rights to education.” It has also filed a lawsuit accusing the three Lincoln employees of unlawfully disclosing private, protected student records. The district superintendent, Carla Santorno, acknowledged the risk that a school-within-a-school could foster inequity but said that she had monitored Lincoln to ensure all students’ needs were being addressed.

The staff complaint comes at a difficult time. Despite its progress in boosting student performance, Lincoln — along with 86 percent of Washington public schools — was recently classified as failing under the 2001 education law No Child Left Behind, which ties school funding to universal competency on standardized tests. Most states are exempted from the law’s requirements, which are widely acknowledged to be unrealistic. But Secretary of Education Arne Duncan revoked Washington’s waiver this past April, citing the state’s failure to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

As a consequence, thousands of students have received “failing school” letters from the state superintendent informing them of their right to transfer to nonfailing schools. Districts will have to divert nearly $40 million in innovation funds, like those that have supported Lincoln Center, to cover private tutoring services and busing costs for transfer students. (Tacoma Public Schools will lose approximately $1.8 million.)

‘A lot of kids, where we grow up, when are you ever going to go ice-skating or go to the car museum? People have to get by day to day.’

Davon White

Lincoln graduate and current college freshman

All this follows a 2012 referendum permitting charter schools to open in Washington — an effort backed by Bill Gates, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Inc., the parents of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Walmart’s Alice Walton. The pro-charter vote added to the anxiety felt by public-school districts: Washington’s highest court ruled in January 2012 that the state’s underfunding of schools amounted to a constitutional violation.

Erwin worried that some Lincoln students might transfer to a nonfailing school or be recruited by an upstart charter. But in September, 1,401 students enrolled.

Just before Labor Day, White was preparing to drive an hour north with his mother, sister and uncle to move into his college dorm. He had gone to Lincoln almost every week for the summer book club, just as he had for Saturday school enrichment during his senior year. “A lot of kids, where we grow up, when are you ever going to go ice-skating or go to the car museum? People have to get by day to day,” he said.

It had turned out to be a trying, precollege summer for White, who, despite his scholarships and awards, was still living hand to mouth. “I was almost evicted this summer. I had to live with a friend for a week,” he said. And during that stretch, he called Erwin and asked for help.

“He’s the kind of person who, if you reach out to him, he’ll reach back. He came to the house with school supplies, a University of Washington sweater [from an alumni donor] and even a gift for my sister,” White recalled. “My mom will struggle for the next few months, but at the same time, in four years, I’ll be making a lot more money.”

White said he expects a difficult transition to university life. He would see very few African-American males like him on campus and wondered if his roommates would be on scholarship or from families able to write a $30,000 tuition check. “Tacoma’s really all I know,” he said. “It’s going to be really uncomfortable, but at Lincoln, you learn who you are.”

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