Inside The O’Farrell Charter School’s brand-new high school gymnasium, students formed an aisle—clapping, cheering, and smiling in a sea of college sweatshirts. They were cheering for O’Farrell’s graduating seniors who waved to family, friends, teachers, and administrators as they made their way through the gym. This was The O’Farrell Charter School’s College Signing Day—a day to recognize the hard work and perseverance of high school seniors in pursuit of higher education. Yet, this year was special for O’Farrell as those smiling seniors are the very first class to graduate from the K-12 charter school…though they certainly won’t be the last.
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O’Farrell Charter School’s programs are designed to help high school students get into the four-year colleges and universities of their choice.
As an AVID National Demonstration School, The O’Farrell Charter School is committed to the success of its students, not only now, but also after they graduate. For instance, students attend school from year to year with their “homebase” teachers, who move with them from 9th through 12th grade, creating strong relationships and student advocacy. However, the school’s open door policy and positive sense of community—from teachers, to counselors, to the administration—makes the entire campus from elementary through high school close-knit and collaborative.
“College Signing Day was emotional for us too,” said O’Farrell high school counselor, Janet Gilbert. “It’s like our kids are going to college, because we really are a family.”
“O’Farrell’s learning environment is spurred by a culture of positivity and support. Students arrive on campus eager to learn every day, and they usually don’t want to leave,” adds high school counselor, Dani Kuzmanovic.
“It’s really cool to be at a school where kids also want to be,” Kuzmanovic said. “They’re excited to be here and they’re invested in each other.” She says students often stay afterschool to go over work, catch up with friends, and talk with their teachers, who are often there long past their contracted hours to support their students in any way they can.
This culture and environment ensure students know everyone is rooting for them and looking out for their future. Different college posters hang in every classroom informing students of their many options. Posted college boards also highlight the choices already made by seniors. On certain days, elementary, middle, and high school students can be seen walking around wearing their favorite colleges and universities on a t-shirt or sweater. Above all, every day at O’Farrell you will hear a conversation about higher education.
“We want our students to know that they’re more than capable of going to college,” Gilbert said. “It’s great to internalize that everyday. We’re trying to create an environment where college is always talked about.”
To prepare students now for the future, guidance lessons with Gilbert and Kuzmanovic are given every Thursday on topics such as examining their digital footprint. Seniors also take a career development course that provides job-shadowing opportunities, helps them create a personal statement, offers resume assistance, and emphasizes financial aid, scholarship, and college research. The course gives students a block of time specifically to help them prepare for their future.
“We’re trying to make college more attainable, rather than having it seem like they’re just shooting in the dark,” Kuzmanovic said. “We make sure they are really well informed.”
That goes for parents of O’Farrell students, too. The school helps students obtain financial aid and holds college parent nights, which encourages parents to come out and learn more about preparing students for college through applications, letters of recommendation, and grant and scholarship options.
Students at O’Farrell go on college tours each year, to expose them to the college process early on. Juniors also have the opportunity to go on a college tour up the California coast at the end of the year, visiting colleges such as Stanford, UC Riverside, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara. This year, 44 students will be going on the tour, including 10 sophomores. “It’s a way to reward the students for their hard work so far,” Kuzmanovic said. “And, to inspire them. A lot of our students haven’t even been out of San Diego, so this gives them the opportunity to actually stand on those campuses.”
All students also have the option to take ten different advanced placement courses and next year, college courses will be offered through a partnership with Cuyamaca College. The courses will help students know what to expect as they head toward higher education, because at O’Farrell, that is the goal for which every student aims. The school has a one hundred percent application rate for colleges and universities.
“Students take ownership for their plans after high school,” Gilbert said. “They develop a sense of pride, especially after being the first in their family to go to college. It’s uplifting to see, and it makes all their hard work really meaningful.”