In their own words: Lincoln

3/1/2017 | TACOMA, Washington

"Nerd Culture" changes the meaning of "cool"

Lincoln, the only high school on the East Side of Tacoma, suffers from a reputation as a “tough” school in an impoverished neighborhood—a reputation that principal Pat Erwin and his team have spent years remaking. Last year’s highly-publicized goodwill visit by 100 Lincoln students to the People’s Republic of China put the 103-year-old school in the national spotlight, but the trip only underscores a sea change in attitudes and approaches to education that informs Lincoln’s culture. As one student put it, “people used to say ‘you go to Lincoln? Oh.’ Now they say ‘You go to Lincoln? Whoa!’”

Here are Erwin and some of Lincoln's teachers and administrators talking about the “nerd culture” and the rest of the Lincoln experience, in their own words.

Pat Erwin, Principal

Tacoma native Erwin attended the private Bellarmine Academy and spent time working at Boeing before becoming a teacher and then principal. He’s been at Lincoln for 13 years.

I was familiar with Lincoln because I was a track athlete, and we competed against Lincoln. Lincoln was sort of home for all the track athletes in town because they had the best facilities. Later when I got into teaching I taught at Mount Tahoma and I also coached track, so I got to coach against some of the guys I ran against in high school.

Pat Erwin, PrincipalWhen I was at Bellarmine we had a community service project, and I went and tutored students at Bryant, which was an elementary school at the time. On a social justice level I was just appalled that we had done such a poor job as a society helping kids to be successful at something that had always been sort of easy for me. And it made me start to question why it was easy for me and what needed to be done to make things better for kids.

When I got here we had some really good people, but we also had some gains to be made in terms of student achievement and accountability. It just became the place I call home.

First and foremost, when I interviewed for this job they asked me what my greatest strength was, and I said I hire well. I think that’s important in any endeavor. I use the analogy that I’m the general manager and the coach—if I don’t do a good job as the general manager I can’t be a good coach either. The work is still hard, and there are always ways to improve, but the people I have in this building make my life easier. This is the best teaching staff of any school I’ve ever visited.

One of the things I did when I got here was impose some accountability. Going to class was kind of optional for kids, they were hanging out in the halls, and that just didn’t work for me. So we established new rules and imposed them, and the kids weren’t happy, but in the end they were happy because school was working a lot better for them.

For the most part my philosophy is if I get the right people in place—and not just that they’re great teachers, but they have good ideas and they help me be a better principal. Usually my office is full of people, and we talk. We talk about best practices, about what other schools are doing. So no one is ever satisfied. We never say “this is good, let’s coast for a while.”       

I’m not a big believer in test scores. I think we overtest, and it drives me nuts. But we have a lot of kids who come here with some of the lowest test scores around. So we started a model several years ago called Lincoln Center, with the idea that kids who are behind academically have to work longer and harder to catch up. So now we have the entire school going an extra hour four days a week. The other key is having programs that connect kids to the school so there’s a sense of family and a sense of community. So we have kids playing sports and not only do they have great coaches but those coaches are on them about keeping their grades up. Our ROTC program is amazing, our drum line is amazing, our theatre program is great. If we have kids who connect with those they’ll have adults in their corner advocating for them. And that’s when kids become successful, when they have adults pushing them.

I’ve never heard someone say “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
On the other hand I hear a lot of stories from people who say they are glad someone was there to push them.

Logic Amen, Assistant Principal

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Logic Amen’s parents are both police officers. His family moved to Washington when he was 12, and he taught and was an administrator in the Seattle School District before coming to Lincoln six years ago.

Logic Amen, Assistant PrincipalI’m from a family of educators. My mom always placed a high premium on education and learning. My grandmother was a teacher for 35 or 40 years. My aunt won principal of the year in 2001, she’s now deputy superintendent at Cincinnati Public Schools. I’ve always been an athlete but I’ve also always been a nerd, with a strong desire to learn.

I think on good days we’re a team (at Lincoln), and on great days we’re a family. That’s what it really is, that culture of family that goes through the building. There’s a lot of pride with our sports programs, and in the acceleration and progression of our academics. Humility, pride and family, those are the core values that make Lincoln unique.

You have to make the commitment, day by day, and use people in your building to be exemplary students and staff members. This is where we need to be at, and giving these people opportunities to show what the standard is and where we need to be. My personal mantra is helping people feel safe and important. If you can’t help someone feel safe, and important, then you can’t get them to do anything. That’s where everything starts. If someone doesn’t feel safe, or important, you’re not going to get the best out of them.

The achievement gap that we have consists largely of black and brown students. I’d like to have more emphasis on the black and brown students, just being a lot more conscious of that. It’s an interesting dynamic when you’re born, and immediately considered a problem. A lot of those students, as opposed to other races, are born into that. You see all these statistics about us not going to college, we’re going to prison, we’re dying in the streets and killing each other. So you’re bombarded with all this negative data that says you’re a problem, you need to be solved.

One thing we can do is take those black and brown students that are excelling and hold them up as exemplary students, and ask them “what did you do in order to be successful?” Also recognizing kids outside of their academic performance – their social and emotional performance. How do they treat others?

Nate Gibbs-Bowling, AP Government Teacher

Washington State teacher of the year 2015 and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year 2016, Gibbs-Bowling is a Tacoma native and graduate of Foss High School. He’s been at Lincoln for eight years.

In any job you want three things: Money, power and respect. If you’re a teacher, the money thing’s kind of not happening. The power thing in many ways is out of the window as well, so the respect really matters.

Nate Gibbs-Bowling, AP Government TeacherI think the teachers (here at Lincoln) feel empowered. What Pat (Erwin) does is go out and hire strong personalities, and then he doesn’t micro-manage them, he gives them support. Most of my conversations with Pat are not him telling me what to do—they’re Pat asking me what I need for support. What resources do I need, what blockades are in my way, what do I need for support?

I feel there’s an entrepreneurial spirit among the teachers in this building, and so teacher leaders come here and they flourish. I use a sports analogy, and think of teachers who are dissatisfied at other places as free agents. I went out and talked to some people at Highline and at Clover Park, and we were able to bring in some great talent this year, because people want to come here and feel empowered like the Lincoln teachers do.

One of our building core values is we celebrate successes. Nine of our football players from Lincoln passed the AP Government exam last year. Nine. Think about that. We talk about Lincoln being the home of scholars and champions, and we celebrate both.

I set the bar high. Even if students don’t make it as high as my bar, they make it farther than they would have otherwise. I always say to my students, I don’t care where you came from, I don’t care what your gaps are, or where your reading level is—you may not be AP students when I get you, but you’ll be AP students when I finish with you. I want my students to be college-ready when they graduate and then they can make the choice. Every kid doesn’t have to go to college, but I want them to be able to make that choice, and not have the choice made for them by their circumstances.

I tell the kids, I will never give you half effort, so don’t give me half effort. If you want to be mediocre, go somewhere else. I’m trying to cultivate excellence. And they buy into it. I come at them with energy and they come back at me with enthusiasm.

We have the highest poverty rate of any high school in Pierce County. But poverty is a complicating factor, not a barricade to learning. I’m not ready to rest on our laurels. I believe that given time and the support our kids need, we can do even more.

Cheryl Bockus, English Teacher and ASB Adviser

Child of an Army family, Bockus came to Tacoma when her parents retired here in her last year of school. She graduated from Wilson High School and spent four years in the Navy before pursuing a career as a teacher. She was one of Pat Erwin’s first hires at Lincoln and has spent her entire 13-year teaching career there.

Cheryl Bockus, English TeacherI think I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I originally wanted to focus on college, though, teaching adults. I got my teaching certification as sort of a backup plan. But then I did my student teaching at Foss, and I loved it, so I decided to get my endorsement in high school education.

I was actually hired by Pat his first year here, so we started at the same time. I didn’t know much about Lincoln—I think if I had, I might have been a little more nervous, because it had kind of a bad reputation at the time. Lincoln is my first job, and I’ve been here 13 years.

Lincoln is different. The biggest factor is Pat, just because he makes such an effort to recruit good teachers from wherever he can find them. One of his best resources for finding good teachers is other teachers! So if we tell him about a good teacher at another school, he’ll go and do his best to bring them here. He does a really good job of recruiting staff.

One of the other things that makes Lincoln different is that Pat trusts the staff. I know it’s not the norm that teachers in the school are also teacher leaders. He puts a lot of responsibility on the teachers but he also offers them a lot of opportunities to take on responsibilities. Most teachers do want to be in control of their environment. So we have a professional leadership team, teachers who plan all professional development for the school. I hear a lot from teachers in other schools and other districts that their professional development isn’t really connected to their school or their curriculum. It’s led by teachers here. It’s one thing to have professional development done by an outsider who comes in and talks for one day and then you never hear from them again. If it’s a co-worker two doors down doing your professional development, and it’s directly related to what you’re doing, and you know and trust them, that’s different. That makes this a really different place to work.

There is a culture of high expectation at this school. I think the culture of cool has changed. Before, perhaps, it was kind of cool not to go to class, and not to get good grades. But we’ve cultivated a kind of nerd culture here, where it’s not cool to get bad grades. Like we have students comparing GPA’s, and they’re vicious about it—when they become seniors, especially, you’ll see them looking at their transcripts and figuring out where they stand in their class. “Oh, I’m 13th, so-and-so is right on my tail, I can’t get less than an A-!” There’s a very competitive academic spirit among the students. I fully embrace my inner nerd, and I tell that to my students.

Minh Nguyen, Chemistry Teacher and Girls’ Tennis Coach

Valedictorian of the Lincoln class of 1993, Minh Nguyen’s girls’ tennis team took the league championship in 2015, despite most of the girls having never picked up a tennis racket before the ninth grade. His older brother Quoc teaches English at Wilson.

Minh Nguyen, Chemistry TeacherMy older brother is also a teacher, and we’ve always had a strong ability to connect with kids, and we’re both into coaching as well. What made me decide to go into teaching was the influence I could have on the lives of kids. In a school like Lincoln, when I was in school, there was a lack of role models. I wanted to be that role model for kids here—and someone who looked like them, too. Sometimes you need a minority person to come back to a place like Lincoln.

I grew up a block from this school. I wanted to make a difference, here at Lincoln and in the community.
I taught for seven years in the Lake Washington school district, which is sort of the polar opposite of here. At Lake Washington you had the perception that even if you weren’t there, those kids were still going to be successful, whereas when you come to a school like Lincoln, you know the kids need good role models and teachers. It was a tough transition my first year, even coming from this community. But since that first year it’s been great.

I’ve had other principals, and Pat’s very progressive, very academic, and very personable. He has strong relationships with the staff. And you can tell he really cares about the kids, he’s interested in a lot more than just getting the graduation rates and test scores up. He’s really invested in and cares in both the students and the staff. It’s inspiring, it makes you want to work harder, for the students and for him.

In this neighborhood we often have to give kids things that kids in other areas don’t have to worry about. Making sure they’re fed, making sure they’re cared about, there are all these other obstacles that need to be addressed before they even get to class. And we can’t cover everything, but we do the best we can.

The most important thing is letting the kids know I care about them. I tell them ‘hey, I know chemistry is tough.” And I let them know that there are adults in the building who value them, not just as students but as people.

Chemistry is traditionally not a field that people expect students from a place like East Tacoma to excel in. But you can use the low expectations others have of them as a motivator—so they can see that no one expects them to be able to handle chemistry, or go on to science fields, they’re totally underrepresented there. I tell them they can do it, every day, all they have to do is put in the time and effort, and a lot of kids respond to that. I teach with kind of a chip on my shoulder. I tell them if they can do chemistry, they can do pretty much anything.

Kale Iverson, Biology Teacher

Born in Omak and a native of “all over Washington and Alaska,” Kale Iverson is a graduate of Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor. In addition to teaching biology classes, Iverson runs “Abe’s Golden Acres,” a greenhouse and small farm that produces starts for the annual Lincoln Plant Sale as well as hundreds of pounds of produce for local food banks.

Kale Iverson, Biology TeacherI got out of college, and had a “normal” job at a power company, and one day my mother made the offhand comment that my Grandma had passed away, and she said “there’s one less teacher in the world,” because my Grandma was a teacher. And that sunk in. I took a big risk, took out a big fat loan and went to UPS to be a teacher.

When I first started teaching I got to substitute here, and I had never seen people that invested in what they were doing here. That was just a one-day snapshot. So I went about my teaching career, and moved around, taught in an Eskimo village in Alaska, taught at Stewart Middle School here in Tacoma, and my love for the East Side community and desire to fight for social agendas and things that need to happen here, for these wonderful people, came to a head when I finally got to come see what’s happening here at Lincoln. The percentage of teachers who are either part of this community or heavily invested in this community is really high. I couldn’t believe how many people here were just spilling their guts out for these kids, and after seeing that I didn’t want to just go back to a job.

I live in Tacoma, been here almost a decade, I like my community, and this is the place where I want to make my stand. Also, the kids are rad! High expectations come from student relationships. It takes time to unpack negative childhood experiences and adverse interactions in education, and once you break through those barriers and form those relationships, there’s a high degree of rigor and expectations you can set for students. But you have to build that relationship first.

Appreciating individuality, working hard and being intentional in helping people find their strengths and weaknesses, and being self-determined, you’ve got to take care of some of those lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Once you get those basic needs met you can start building esteem, and then work towards mastery.

You emotionally want to rebuild everybody and you want to rebuild opportunity and access, and often we don’t think about food systems as part of that. Think about a student that eats fresh local food from kindergarten through high school, versus a student who eats fast food, and tell me who is going to grow up to be the more healthy and productive person? I get to work that agenda here, because that’s part of (Lincoln administration) appreciating who I am. We have all these wonderful teachers here with this mosaic of agendas, that’s what makes this school so awesome. It’s a big fabric, and kids will get caught up in it somewhere. If it’s not me on the farm it’ll be a swim coach, or a student store clerk, or someone else. That’s the goal, to make the net so thick nobody falls through.