Lincoln High School was constructed to address the increasing enrollment of students at nearby East High School. During this time, the south side of Des Moines was home to new urban development. This further increased enrollment and the need for an additional school. A bond issue was passed on March 18, 1918, that provided the funds to build the school. By 1923, construction was completed, at a cost of $949,754.95 USD.
At that time, the school had 55 classrooms, a swimming pool, two gymnasiums, several labs, an art and music room, a cafeteria, and an auditorium, providing for a total student capacity of 1,300.
In 1962 an additional wing was constructed, with classrooms, laboratory areas, and a library with over 13,000 volumes.
A male faculty lounge was added in 1963. An existing light-well was enclosed to provide for this new room.
In 1964, further expansions were contracted at a total cost of $1,667,000. This provided for the construction of the Roundhouse, home to the indoor sporting venues. On the lower level, a new swimming pool and boys' locker room were constructed. The old swimming pool was converted to classroom space, but the old gymnasiums are still in use. The old locker rooms were remodeled into the girls' locker rooms.
There are a number of prized possessions at the school. In the floor of the vestibule is the school monogram done in bronze, surrounded by a design in variegated marble. On the south wall is a portrait of The Boy Lincoln, painted by Russell Cowles, a former student of West High School. On the north wall is Lincoln the Statesman, painted by William Reaser. In the main corridor is a bronze bust of Lincoln, the work of Laurence Stewart, former student of East High.
The cornerstone of the old Lincoln School, which used to be at Ninth and Mulberry Streets, has been set as a memorial on the Lincoln High lawn. It was presented to the school with appropriate ceremonies when the old school was demolished. This cornerstone is only one of the many reminders of President Lincoln that are preserved by the school. There is a steel engraving of the Lincoln family when Lincoln was in office, and one of the President himself, both presented to the school by Fred Foss. A piece of a log from Lincoln’s cabin birthplace was presented by W. L. King, a former school teacher. An engraving of the national monument in the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, which was dedicated by President Lincoln with his famous Gettysburg Address, is also in the collection. In the auditorium above the stage are the words of that famous address, in gold.
Lincoln has three levels of classrooms, with the Commons and music classrooms located on the lowest level. The old "small gym" occupies the second and third levels in the main concourse (with the entrance on the second level). The Roundhouse is the primary gymnasium in use at Lincoln. The upper level holds an arena with a capacity of 2,500. The lower level of the Roundhouse holds the weight-training area, boys' locker rooms, and swimming pool. All freshman classes are held at RAILS academy (formally known as Kurtz Junior High building).
On the opposite side of Bell Avenue are two student parking lots, tennis courts, a general practice field, and Hutchens Metro Stadium (home to football and track events). Hutchens Metro Stadium has a capacity of 7,500.
Drama – The Drama Department has won awards, especially in the area of IHSSA. It presents two full-length performances each year. The department is led by Karen Sissel.
Music – Musical groups at Lincoln include Concert Band, Marching Band, Jazz Band I, Jazz Band II, Pep Band, Orchestra, Chamber Choir, Treble Choir, Concert Choir, RAILS Ninth Grade Choirs, Infinity Varsity Show Choir, Omega JV Show Choir, and Jazz Choir. The Lincoln Vocal Music Department is led by Director Christian White, assisted by Director Paige Harpin. The band department is led by directors Darin Bartachek and Kevin Steggmann.
Journalism – The official school newspaper is The Railsplitter. It has received merit recognition from the National Scholastic Press Association, Columbia School of Journalism, the highest recognition given to a high school publication. There is also an independent newspaper, The Random Independent, created by freshmen at Lincoln South.
Visual arts – Art classes include Painting/Drawing/Multi-Media, 3D design, and AP Studio Art. Each year the art department competes in exhibitions and art shows. The art club is called the Dorian Art Club.
Lincoln is a member of the Central Iowa Metropolitan League (CIML), which consists of 19 schools across central Iowa and is divided into four conferences. Lincoln competes in the CIML Metro conference. The league includes seven teams: the five Des Moines schools (East, Hoover, Lincoln, North, and Roosevelt), Indianola, and Ottumwa.
Lincoln High School has 19 sports – ten for boys and nine for girls – and there are ample opportunities for students to get involved, either as a participant or a team manager.
The girls' basketball team had one of the best basketball programs in the state in the early 2000s. During the 2001–02 season they were ranked seventh in the nation under coach Jerry Shartner. The program is now led in the direction of head coach Scott Harrison.
Lincoln's baseball program also has a very storied history. The Rails have had many state titles, state appearances and conference championship titles. They finished top 10 in the state in batting during the 2014 season. With a 20–19 record, they finished third in the conference.
During the 2006 season the girls' swim team defeated the school's arch-rival Roosevelt for the first time in the school's history.
The football program had the most success in school history under the direction of Head Football Coach Tom Mihalovich. Coach Mihalovich took over in 2001. Before his arrival the team had not experienced a winning record in ten years, and had the longest losing streak in the state at the 4A level. Within four years, the team had a winning record, and in 2005 earned a playoff berth for only the second time in school history. Previously, the school's only playoff appearance was in 1976. The program's continued success included four conference championship titles, six play-off appearances, and the first ever playoff victory, in 2011. The 2011 team set conference and school records that included a nine-game winning streak, best overall record (9–2) and numerous conference and school statistical records. Coach Mihalovich is the winningest coach in school history, with a mark of 57–51. In the last eight years of Coach Mihalovich's tenure, his record was 52–29. The team made the state playoffs in 2014, with a 3–6 record and losing to Ankeny High School 42-7. They also made the state playoffs in 2015 with a 4–5 record, losing to Dowling Catholic 62–0.
The 2014 softball team finished with 20 wins.
The sport Lincoln has had historically the most success in is boys' basketball. Lincoln was a basketball powerhouse in the 1970s and 1980s, led by coach John Carle from 1971 to 1982. During his 11 seasons Lincoln made it to the sub-state final eight times, including three state qualifications and the 1975 state championship. During the championship run in the 1974–75 season, the Rails finished 24–0. Coach Carle's career record at Lincoln was 181–54. Since the days of Coach Carle, Lincoln has had continued success in basketball with a handful of state qualifications. They most recently qualified for state in 2007. Starting in the 2016–17 season, Lincoln's boys' basketball head coach became Justin Einerson.
As of the 2005–06 school year, there were 2,126 students enrolled at Lincoln, which makes the school the largest in Iowa, ahead of West High School in Davenport. 76.9% of the student body is of White (European-American) descent (down from 79.3% in the 2004–05 school year). The leading ethnic group by enrollment is that of Latino descent, and they are followed by Black (African-American), Asian, and Indian (Native American or Alaskan Native). This makes the school the least diverse of the other high schools in the Des Moines Public School district.
There are approximately 107 instructors at Lincoln High, which puts the student-teacher ratio at about 20 students per course instructor. 76 additional personnel carry out other administrative duties. In total, the faculty count is approximately 183.
Student extracurricular activities include:
The school is on a system of "block" scheduling, which shortens the number of classes per day to four; however, each class is significantly longer than in years past. Each student is required to take eight classes with four on each day on an alternating schedule (referred to as "A" and "B" days). The school district requires students to take a number of core academic courses, including Social Studies, English, Mathematics, Science, Art, and Physical Education. The amount of academic credit needed to satisfy graduation requirements is determined by the school district. Many students also attend Central Academy and Central Campus in downtown Des Moines in order to acquire college credit and technical proficiency.
All students are required by the district to enroll in four subject courses and a Physical Education course. However, the school compels lower-class students to schedule a full day of classes, in order to ensure satisfaction with district graduation requirements. Juniors and seniors have the option of having an "open period" during the first or last period of the school day. Seniors may have open periods during any period. However, juniors require parental permission to have an open period.
The district requires four years of Physical Education. Freshmen and sophomores usually take their PE courses at the school. Juniors and seniors have the option of taking alternative PE programs, including a bowling class that requires students to commute to a nearby bowling alley. In compliance with state law, students with a full academic schedule can be made exempt from all PE requirements for that year, or allowed to perform self-study PE.