Departure of Lincoln's Principal Teaches Hard Lesson in Reality

When Hollywood tells the story of the tough-yet-compassionate principal who takes over the troubled inner-city school, it all turns out well in the end. The principal defies the skeptics, discipline is enforced and low-achieving kids who always had the potential begin to succeed.

The recent history of San Diego's Lincoln High School and its charismatic principal, Ruby Cremaschi-Schwimmer, allows us to fast-forward to reality. Cremaschi-Schwimmer was handpicked by Supt. Tom Payzant in 1986 for the monumental task of re-making Lincoln, one of the city's most troubled schools.

Four years ago, Lincoln had the district's second-worst test scores and second-highest dropout rate. More than 1,000 students were commuting to other city schools, leaving behind a far smaller number willing to send their children to the sagging neighborhood school.

Cremaschi-Schwimmer called her challenge "a sacred mission" and attacked it with corresponding zeal. She became the school's motivator, cheerleader, disciplinarian and advocate. Attendance increased when she persuaded Latino and Indochinese parents to send their children to the largely black school. The campus was rid of graffiti, and fences were put up to keep out undesirables. The dropout rate declined. The curriculum was revamped to emphasize college preparatory courses.

But Lincoln students continued to be plagued by horrendous math and reading test scores. As the years went by, Cremaschi-Schwimmer became increasingly frustrated about butting heads with an administration that would not give her the resources she believed the Lincoln experiment requires. Two years ago, Lincoln's freshman and sophomore enrollments were reduced by two-thirds when nearby Gompers Secondary School was eliminated as a feeder institution.

Last week, Cremaschi-Schwimmer resigned, physically and emotionally exhausted from her effort and fearful for her health. Perhaps this should be no surprise to anyone who has followed with hope Cremaschi-Schwimmer's herculean effort. But Cremaschi-Schwimmer's departure will be Lincoln's loss and serves notice that, in real life, the complex task of educating low-income minority students remains one of the most intractable problems facing the city schools.

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