There was a book on Lincoln High School students, and a response every Lincoln teacher or administrator had heard when Patrick Erwin became the principal 13 years ago.
The book was, don’t invest in Lincoln students – they were not worth the time.
And the response?
“It was the ‘O’ response,” Erwin said. “Someone would ask one of our teachers where they worked, and they’d said Lincoln and the response was always ‘Ohhhhhhhh…..’”
Erwin, 52, can laugh now. Lincoln High School is not what it was 13 years ago, for which the Tacoma School District is profoundly grateful.
“At Lincoln, we push against the book every day. We have the state Teacher of the Year, Nate Bowling. We have sports programs with integrity. We established a band program, an ROTC program,” Erwin said.
“When I first came to Lincoln, the first thing I noticed was the kids were everywhere except their classrooms. There was no accountability.
“I took their freedom away. They needed to be in class. This needed to be a school again,” Erwin said.
It has become one, and Erwin is at the center of it. Walking the halls of a high school built in 1913, he knows nearly every student, and they know him. Anyone who wants to talk to him can – students, teachers, secretaries.
“Everyone needed a tribe, and we tried to provide options for each student with school programs,” Erwin said. “More important, I tried to bring in the best instructors, and made sure those teachers wanted to be at Lincoln.
“The idea here was to help transform a community.”
In a way, Erwin was part of the community before he became Lincoln’s principal. He was born and raised in Tacoma, and his family had deep roots. Mother Marlene went to Lincoln, graduated in the Class of 1960.
As times changed, so did the Lincoln neighborhood, which is one of the poorest in Tacoma. That meant kids enrolling at school were not always can’t-miss students.
“Historically, Lincoln has had the worst-prepared students in the district coming in,” Erwin said. “I’ve told our staff, ‘When we come to work every day, we make a difference. We better lives.’”
Erwin changed the culture at Lincoln, got kids back in the classroom – and hired teachers who wanted to be in those classrooms with them.
“I love it when I'm the dumbest guy in the room, because that means I've brought in a lot of smart people,” Erwin said. “There's a spirit of collaboration here. We all have the same goals.”
Lincoln’s athletic programs became competitive, and did it without coaches heavily recruiting kids from throughout the city. Far more importantly, Lincoln’s graduation rate climbed.
“When I got here, the graduation rate was about 60 per cent,” Erwin said. “Today, we’re at 82 per cent. Last year we had 193 seniors sign up for college on signing day, the highest total in school history.”
Getting his students a high school diploma – and the chance to go beyond high school – is a key toward helping the community, Erwin said.
“If kids don't graduate, they don't get jobs. If they don't get jobs, they don't pay taxes and that impacts what happens in the community,” Erwin said. “Every student here is on extra hours – from 7:35 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. every day.”
Next year will be Erwin’s 25th in education. He began as a teacher at Mount Tahoma High, became an assistant principal at Hunt Middle School and a principal at what became First Creek Middle School before being assigned to Lincoln.
Erwin said he has no desire to move into an administrative job with the district; he enjoys the work of a principal. His wife, Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland, isn’t certain what his future will be.
”Being a principal is a young man's game” Strickland said, laughing. “You’ve got to be motivated, inspired, very competitive. Pat's recruited staff with the willingness to face challenges and they’ve responded.
“The biggest change since he’s been there is Lincoln's reputation. Today, that school is full of pride, with a lot of accomplishments. It's not about trophies and championships – they’re not running a marketing campaign. They're doing right by their students,” she said.
Much as Erwin has enjoyed the successes at Lincoln, he is as fond of the one-on-one experiences he and the rest of the school staff have with students. They’ve built relationships that go beyond high school days.
“I had a student come back the year after graduating, on his college break, and invite me to take part in a sweat lodge ceremony,” Erwin said. “I went, and I talked another teacher into going with me.
“I grew up Catholic, and we don't express our emotions well. With my kids at Lincoln, I can say, 'I love you' and mean it.”