O'Farrell Community School: Center for Advanced Academic Studies

By Stein, Bob | Phi Delta Kappan, September 1996 | Go to article overview
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O'Farrell Community School: Center for Advanced Academic Studies


Stein, Bob, Phi Delta Kappan


Mr. Stein describes how O'Farrell Community School - with its unique "family" structure and close collaboration with social service agencies - prepares a diverse population of middle schoolers to enter high school college-preparatory programs.

After a year and a half of community planning, O'Farrell Community School in San Diego reopened to its multiracial, multi-cultural urban community in September 1990. For eight years most resident middle schoolers had been bused to other nearby schools while a very popular magnet program, the School of Creative and Performing Arts, was housed on what had been a junior high school campus that the board of education had closed in 1981.

The 1,400-member student body is 35% African American, 37% Filipino American, 16% Hispanic, 4% Asian, and 8% Anglo. Approximately 68% of the children receive free or reduced-price lunches, and the school qualifies as a schoolwide Title I program.

O'Farrell Community School was built on the principles of restructuring, teacher and community empowerment, interagency collaboration, and interdisciplinary teaching. Relationships were developed with the Panasonic and Smart Foundations, and the school enjoyed great success in its first three years, acquiring restructuring grants, technology grants, health and human services grants, and national recognition for its work. It also became affiliated with several national educational efforts, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools, the National Alliance for Restructuring Education, New Standards, the Harvard Pace Project, and Stanford's HumBio Project.

For the most part, the school experienced positive relationships with the district and with teacher and administrator organizations. When California's charter law was passed in 1992, the school's community council considered applying for charter status but decided that its restructuring efforts were going along well enough without engagement in another kind of reform movement.

Three separate incidents changed the minds of council members. The most significant was a grievance filed against the school by the district's counselors and psychologists. The grievance charged that O'Farrell had done away with these positions in order to hire more teachers. The matter was resolved in mediation, but those at the school were still concerned.

The second incident was the adoption of a district policy that prevented schools from using funds to rent off-campus facilities for retreats and meetings. O'Farrell had used funds from the Stuart Foundation for just such activities and wanted to continue to do so despite protests from some in the district.

The third event was a running battle with the state credentialing laws that related to middle school teaching. There was a great deal of difficulty in getting the state waivers that had been promised by S.B. 1274, and there were constant problems with the district-level credentialing staff in the central office. Combine these difficulties with the consistent problem of getting new applicants for the school and the continual fear of having excessed teachers placed at the site because of union rules, and it's easy to understand what led the school to apply for a charter. In January 1994 O'Farrell Community School became California's 48th charter school.

O'Farrell Community School offers an enriched, untracked three-year academic program for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students. All children are assigned to "educational families" that deliver the interdisciplinary curriculum. Currently, there are nine educational families: three sixth-grade families and six combined (ungraded) seventh- and eighth-grade families of approximately 150 students apiece.

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