By the numbers, O’Farrell Charter School — the Miracle on 61st Street — isn’t much different from other public schools in San Diego’s low-income neighborhoods.
Every student at the South Encanto campus receives free lunch, and 25 percent are English language learners, but O’Farrell succeeds while similar schools fail.
It’s the numbers that tell the story. On the annual California state standards test, the school received an Academic Performance Index (API) of 832 in 2013. The state’s goal is an API of 800, so surpassing it by 96 points is quite an accomplishment, especially after just two years under the leadership of a new principal/superintendent.
Here are four reasons why O’Farrell leads the pack:
O’Farrell teachers, staff, and administrators work together
When he took over as school principal/superintendent, Dr. Jonathan Dean focused on collaboration so that teachers could work together in the best interest of students. In doing such, he developed a road map for every grade level to follow to ensure students would all receive the same high level of instruction and rigor, regardless of their learning level or class. Teachers meet at least once a week to discuss student progress, teaching techniques, how to maintain high achievement levels and which students need more support.
O’Farrell educators aren’t afraid to try new techniques
O’Farrell has begun using iPads and netbooks in all classrooms to make lessons more meaningful, engaging, and interactive for students. O’Farrell has also extended the school day and year for students, adding a 30-minute skills class in which students are given classwork focused on math or language arts skills that they need to improve. Students who are struggling in more than a single area receive special one-on-one and small-group lessons with teachers.
College preparation is the top focus
O’Farrell students begin hearing about college in kindergarten and continue to hear about and discuss college throughout their academic careers at the school. Every classroom at O’Farrell has a “College Board,” where the teacher and students create a bulletin board highlighting a college or university of their choice. O’Farrell Assistant Principal, Anne Mathews, said this often creates a healthy competition centered in college among classrooms and educates children early on about going to college. At O’Farrell, teachers believe their students will go to college, so students believe it themselves as well.
Additionally, Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college-readiness program, has been so successful at O’Farrell that the school is now the second charter school in California to be named a National AVID Demonstration School. AVID encourages strategies such as better note-taking techniques and organization that students can use when they get to college.
Learning doesn’t end with math and English
In addition to its rigorous coursework, O’Farrell offers a diverse number of outlets for students to express themselves through athletics, art, and humanities.
For example, O’Farrell offers a unique PE concept for high schoolers. Students can take PE through independent study classes in which parents sign logs and teachers verify for credit. They also have the ability to take school fitness classes such as CrossFit or tae kwon do, or join a sports team on campus.
Unlike many public schools in San Diego, O’Farrell continues to offer students classes in music, art, drama, computers, and technology. In 2010, the O’Farrell choir did a tribute to Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World” and then packed and delivered lunches for the homeless in downtown:
O’Farrell also extends learning for students outside the classroom through events such as sixth-grade camp, a ninth-grade retreat, and trips to colleges and universities throughout the school year.
Johanna Mejia, a former Falcon, graduated from Harvard this past year.
“I really enjoyed the relationships that were created when I went to O’Farrell. I had the same group of teachers that stayed with me during my time there,” Mejia said. “They really got to know my strengths and weaknesses, and therefore were able to help me grow during the years I attended.”