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Inspired Students

In Dallas's inner city, it's called simply the "Lincoln way." It's the Lincoln High School mix of hard work, racial pride, and spiritualism that adds up to . . .

By Dan McGraw

It's a few days before Thanksgiving, and the entire student body of Lincoln High School, a Dallas public school of 1,082, is gathered in the auditorium for a holiday program. At most public schools, an officially sponsored holiday event would be mocked by the way-cool teenage crowd as one of those irrelevant and completely outdated things that adults foist on kids. But at Lincoln, the scene is very different. The school's choir sings several gospel numbers, causing students to rise to their feet and sway in time, their arms extended upward. Then a 1995 Lincoln High graduate, the Rev. Marlon Duncan, a Baptist minister and student at Grambling State University, gives a fire-and-brimstone sermon about the Old Testament trials of Job, and many students shout "Amen" and cheer and rise to their feet during the emotional address. As other speakers talk sternly of the perils of peer pressure and the virtues of hard work, the high schoolers sit in respectful silence. Then, at the program's end, Principal Earl Jones asks the entire assemblage to hold hands, bow their heads, and think about "the truths that have been spoken here."

One "truth" seems obvious: If a school is able to get teenage boys to hold hands and bow their heads in public, to respect each other and pay attention, getting them to do their algebra homework can't be all that difficult. In many American high schools, however, it's very difficult. Large numbers of students in both urban and suburban schools drift through their high school careers largely apathetic to learning. By one estimate, as many as two thirds of the nation's public secondary school students are "disengaged" from their schoolwork. Factors such as drugs, television, and uninvolved parents are partly to blame. But in many instances, schools fail to give students good enough reasons to learn. The school reformer John Goodlad has called boredom "a disease of epidemic proportion" in the nation's public high schools.

Risk and expectation. The simple truth is that students are not going to meet today's high standards if they do not care. The challenge is perhaps toughest in urban high schools serving disadvantaged and minority students, where the student culture often disparages hard work in the classroom and where teachers and administrators often have limited expectations of their students.

By any measure of its environment and its students' backgrounds, Lincoln might seem to fall into this category. It is in a neighborhood 5 miles south of downtown Dallas with an average household income of $14,354--an amount that is half the Texas average--and it sits in an area that has one of the city's highest crime rates. The school is located on a street populated with liquor stores and bars, and it is common for young men to hang around street corners throughout the day, drinking 40-ounce beers. Next door to Lincoln is a cemetery and across the street is the Top and Bottom Lounge. Those looking for pessimistic symbolism might see in Lincoln's neighbors the likely career and life options for students at the school.

But Lincoln belies the stereotype of urban failure. Though its students are mostly poor, they reach high academic levels. Their results rival those of any affluent suburban school. About a fifth of Lincoln's students are admitted selectively--the school has a humanities/communications magnet program open to students throughout Dallas who score above the state average on achievement tests. But all the students take their core courses together, and nonmagnet students score at roughly the same levels as those in the magnet program. About the same percentage of both groups are enrolled in advanced courses--38 percent. Last year, 84 percent of Lincoln's students took SAT/ACT tests. As another measure of how well Lincoln students do, a school with similar demographics (57 percent of the school's students are eligible for free or reduced school lunches, a poverty indicator) would be expected to have 57 percent of its students pass Texas's high school reading exam and 44 percent would be expected to pass its high school math test. Yet 90 percent of Lincoln's students pass the reading exam and 82 percent pass the math test.

Like other schools in tough city neighborhoods, Lincoln has sought to stop the problems of the local streets from invading the school. The school does contain the requisite metal detectors at the entrances, and it requires students to hang identification badges from their necks to help security personnel spot strangers in the hallways and escort them out. But visitors quickly notice that the boys do not wear earrings or baggy pants slung low and the girls do not wear short skirts or see-through blouses. There is not a speck of graffiti in any of the bathrooms or outside the school. The atmosphere is no-nonsense. "We're taught from the day we get here that this school operates like a business, and you act accordingly," says senior Hamilton Sneed.

Strict discipline provides a foundation for what Lincoln expects from its students. Yet it hardly explains why Lincoln students' academic performance is above both Dallas's and statewide averages. A strict dress code does not directly explain why nearly 40 percent of students take advanced placement courses. And hard-nosed rules against tardiness don't reveal why more than 90 percent of the students take college entrance exams or how Lincoln students won over $2 million in college scholarships last year.

Clearly, there is something different that motivates students at Lincoln to learn. It flows from the school's embrace of two controversial strategies. First, it stresses racial pride among its students, particularly by highlighting the school's history as a leading black institution in Dallas. It also focuses some class work on materials designed to boost esteem among blacks, who make up 98 percent of the student body. This approach could easily confound critics of Afrocentrism. Second, Lincoln has adopted a very public spiritualism--a strategy that often does not sit well with other kinds of school critics.

Lincoln was started in 1939 as Dallas's second "Negro" high school, and the African-American community of south Dallas has always seen the school as part of its heritage, something that the white power structure of the city could never take away. The school has flourished through the years--despite separate and decidedly unequal funding during the years of segregation; in the face of desegregation orders that brought forced busing in the 1960s and 1970s; and in the present era, where resegregation is taking place. "Even though our textbooks were secondhand, and even though our buildings were never first rate, this school has always been the anchor of our community, something we knew was ours," says Kathlyn Gilliam, a 1948 graduate of the school and a former member of the Dallas School Board who served for 23 years.

Focus on identity. Today, Lincoln reverberates with racial pride. "We aren't Afrocentric," says Juanita Simmons, a Lincoln dean. "But we constantly let kids know what's attainable for them. Our kids know who they are and they know their history." To that end, many Lincoln freshmen take a course in African-American history, and the school has an art gallery that displays student work and depicts black heroes in American history. Spotless trophy cases triumph the great Lincoln sports teams. The school also sponsors international travel for its performing-arts groups: The choir has sung in Vienna and London, and the African dance troupe has performed in Africa.

Lincoln also teaches its students about the successes of previous generations of Lincoln students, including a half-dozen graduates who are on the school's faculty and Charles Willie, a professor of education at Harvard University. Kids in the feeder middle schools in south Dallas know what's expected of them at Lincoln because many have heard parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles talk of the "Lincoln way."

"When you come to Lincoln, you're representing your entire family and the entire community," says senior Kevin Watson. "You don't want to let anyone down."

The Lincoln way includes long-standing traditions that typical teenagers would scoff at today. At year's end, the school honors graduating seniors at an appreciation dinner where girls traditionally wear white dresses with black patent leather shoes and the boys wear dark suits. "From the time I was a little kid, I dreamed of walking across that stage on senior appreciation night," says Watson. Such unvarnished pride is infectious at Lincoln. "At some schools, trying to get good grades is held against you by other students," says senior Chazma Jones. "Here, the pressure is on the kids who don't work hard." Cynicism simply isn't part of Lincoln's zeitgeist.

Many of Lincoln's traditions can be traced to Napoleon Bonaparte Lewis, who died in 1997 after serving as the school's principal. Known as "Papa Bear," he was a no-nonsense taskmaster who demanded educational excellence. To Lewis, poverty, drugs, crime, or the fact of being black were no excuse for not achieving. "You give a kid a crutch," he would say, "and he learns to walk with a limp."

Lewis brought high standards to Lincoln's curriculum, not allowing any math course easier than algebra to be taught at the school and adding honors and AP courses. To encourage students to go to college and to prepare them for doing so, he instituted a requirement that students take college entrance exams such as the Scholastic Assessment Test at least twice before graduation. (The school's test-prep program caused some controversy a couple of years ago, when the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT, discovered a box of tests had been opened at Lincoln before the appointed time. An investigation cleared the school of any wrongdoing.)

Lincoln's determination to push its students is reflected in the school's fierce independence, even defiance of Dallas school officials. Lewis drew the wrath of the city's school board over the years for creating his own disciplinary rules and for occasionally hiring his own teachers. The students produce TV shows for the Dallas district's cable access channel, and twice in recent years district administrators have pulled the plug on the program: once when a student production ran taped speeches of Louis Farrakhan, the other time when Lincoln students produced a show exploring gay lifestyles. And, of course, there's the use of prayer and religious programs in the school. "We don't look at Lincoln High School as having any special rules, and they know that religious programs in the school should not happen," says Robert Payton, associate superintendent for the Dallas Independent School District. "We have very clear policies against such activities and the school has been made aware of them."

The official position notwithstanding, Lincoln is very much like a church. At times, its message to students is emotional and inspiring, at others it's intellectual and demanding. But, always, the message is focused on convincing students that they can do well, rather than making excuses for why they can't.

Examples of excellence

Counties (all or part): Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Henderson, Hood, Hunt, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall, and Tarrant


Lake Highlands, Dallas

Lamar, Arlington

Lincoln, Dallas

[Data for chart are not available.]


Billy Ryan, Denton

Cleburne, Cleburne

Ennis, Ennis

Garland, Garland

Plano East Sr., Plano

Waxahachie, Waxahachie

[Data for chart are not available.]

SUCCESS RATIO: Ratio of actual to expected performance. When this equals 1.0 (at the PERFORMANCE THRESHOLD line), actual performance equals expected performance. Above the line, schools are performing better than expected.

Below the line, schools are not performing as well as expected. AP TEST TAKING: Number of Advanced Placement tests taken divided by number of seniors. SAT/ACT TEST TAKING: Percent of students taking college-admissions tests. STATE TEST SCORES: Percent of students passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills math and reading tests. SAT/ACT TEST SCORES: Average college admissions test scores. S: A public school (a magnet, in some cases) that has selective admissions for at least half its students.