O’Farrell Charter School has come a long way since it appeared on the state’s list of schools struggling academically more than six years ago.

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“Before we made the changes that helped create the program we have today, people thought of O’Farrell as a school they did not want to send their children to. The staff, students, and community have worked hard to change that perception,” said Anne Mathews, O’Farrell’s Elementary Academy principal.

Here is how O’Farrell transformed:

1. It Pushed Hard to Help English Learners

The school’s location, in San Diego’s low-income South Encanto neighborhood at the corner of 61st Street and Skyline Drive, poses unique challenges to educators.

Many of its students come from low-income families – 74 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. Additionally, a high number of students come from homes where English isn’t the primary language.

The school landed on the state’s list of schools struggling academically because too many students did not make progress on tests for English learners. The school reacted by embracing alternative methods to help students catch up.

First, O’Farrell enrolled low-performing students in summer school, where they took extra classes in reading, writing and math. This program was so successful that it continues today. O’Farrell also hired new English learner aides to help students during and after school.

See how O’Farrell’s students’ ethnicities compare to those state and county-wide:

2. It Expanded School Days and the School Year

One of O’Farrell’s goals is to maintain excellent student attendance, Mathews said. Research says students who miss school fall behind and are more likely to drop out.

The school’s work has paid off: It reached an impressive attendance rate of 96.5 percent in the 2013-14 school year. Mathews said the school succeeded by making sure students received more instructional minutes.

“We have a longer school year and a longer school day than most San Diego Unified schools because we know that time on task is what students need to be successful,” Mathews added. “We put a lot of effort into making attendance a priority, from meeting with parents individually at the beginning of the year to making phone calls every day to students who are absent to see the reason why and try to help if we can.”

In fact, the school has a family support services employee who monitors attendance and helps families of students who have trouble attending.

As for dropouts, a common challenge for public schools, O’Farrell said the school sometimes has had students leave to go to other schools, but no one has dropped out yet from the school’s three-year-old high school. O’Farrell now has both elementary and high schools.

3. It Boosted Test Scores to Higher Levels

Before the state suspended standardized tests, students took annual multiple-choice exams measuring whether they met the state’s academic standards. O’Farrell’s test scores beat average scores in the county and the state.

See how students rank up at O’Farrell compared to the rest of the state and county:

What’s Next?

In May, O’Farrell was awarded silver for the National Excellence in Urban Education Award, which honors urban schools that excel academically.

“Being a charter school is unique,” Mathews said. “Other schools might have more resources. We are currently a single-site charter school. We do everything on our own and ensure that our program is the best we can offer families.”

Visit the O’Farrell website to see how enrolling your child in a charter school like O’Farrell can help his or her achievement.

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