The O’Farrell Charter School — San Diego’s premier public charter school, which acts like a private school — is on a roll.
As of this school year, O’Farrell’s campus in San Diego’s Encanto neighborhood is now home to every grade level — all the way from year-one kindergarten through 12th grade. That is unusual in a city where kids almost always transition from an elementary site, to a middle school site, to a high school site.
The parents, teachers, students, and administrators at O’Farrell decided to stand out. They are used to being unique, and thus, wanted to extend their extraordinary brand of education beyond middle school to both the lower elementary and upper high school grades.
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“We made the change because of what happened to our middle school students. After being so successful in our middle school, they would move on to the two high schools on either side of us,” says Brian Rainey, principal of the high school. “We would watch what would happened, and it was really sad. Many of them struggled, and it was very difficult to see them not get the support they needed and slip through the cracks.”
It’s not unusual, of course, for high school students to have problems keeping up with the challenges of new expectations. O’Farrell’s staff believes that if students aren’t succeeding when they leave O’Farrell, the school itself isn’t succeeding. Thus, the school decided to expand to high school. Ultimately, O’Farrell is designed to prepare students for four-year universities.
First, O’Farrell added a 9th grade. “We watched as our 8th graders went on to be successful in O’Farrell’s 9th grade,” Rainey says. Then the school expanded to 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. This year, O’Farrell’s first senior class will graduate.
How are these kids doing? Fantastically well. “When our freshman took the physics California State Test, they scored better than the students — mostly juniors — at La Jolla High,” Rainey says. “In geometry, only three high schools in all of San Diego Unified had a higher percentage of students who scored at the proficient and or advanced levels. And in algebra, no high school in the district had a higher percentage at scoring proficient and or advanced.”
Rainey credits the school’s success to its culture. “We’re small on purpose. In some ways, we operate a lot more like a private school than a public school,” he says. “We have uniforms and a strict code of behavior.”
Discipline at O’Farrell means that students do not keep receiving detention when they violate the rules. “Each consequence will progress from the one before it to be more severe,” Rainey says, “so students can’t keep misbehaving and expect nothing to change.”
Yet, while students are held responsible for their choices, O’Farrell doesn’t leave them to sink or swim on their own. “There’s no crack to fall through,” Rainey says. “Every student has a home base teacher for 25 minutes who watches their grades and behaviors, provides discipline if they need it, and presents instruction on character development. When drama hits, as it always does in high schools, there’s someone there who notices, comes alongside and helps them solve their problems and gets them back on track right away.”
O’Farrell, however, is not a school created for the elite. Most of its students come from the low-income Encanto area, with the next highest percentage of students coming from nearby Logan Heights. Many of the school’s students face the challenges of poverty, but at O’Farrell they find new opportunities as well.
“In order to go to college, a student needs to take the SAT. We make sure that every student takes it because we pay for it. We also make sure every kid takes the ACT by paying for it as well. In order to get ready for those tests, you need to take the PSAT. So we pay for that, too. And, we make sure every kid takes the PSAT,” Rainey says. “It’s all part of our program. We make sure they’re ready.”
After all, every O’Farrell student is required to apply to at least one four-year university. This year 100% of O’Farrell seniors applied to at least one four-year university, including prestigious colleges. One student has already been scheduled for an interview with Princeton University in New Jersey.
Now, O’Farrell’s physical presence will match its vast academic accomplishments. The campus just debuted its new high school campus, and students will soon enjoy a new football field, track, and gym. The campus includes: new classrooms, science labs, administrative offices, a full sized gym, and a college center devoted to helping students apply for colleges and financial aid. “We’ll now have more of the same experiences of a traditional high school campus,” Rainey says.
Rainey says visitors will find more to admire than new buildings. “We don’t have fights and/or gang issues,” he says. “Walk down our halls, and you won’t see kids making out, cursing all over the place, or yelling at teachers here. You’ll see students smiling, laughing with teachers, and quizzing each other before tests. Our kids are respectful and really kind to each other.”
What’s next? More of the same success. “These kids can be successful,” Rainey says. “When our kids constantly outscore some of the most affluent schools in San Diego Unified, it says something—The kids weren’t really the problem in the first place.”