The O’Farrell Charter School sees a fraction of the fights as Lincoln High, two miles west. Based on surveys area principals conducted with parents, violence is a big part of the reason why 70 percent of southeastern San Diego families opt for charters or schools in other neighborhoods.

While other nearby district schools are figuring out how to attract students from the neighborhood, students are clamoring to get into Gompers Preparatory Academy and The O’Farrell Charter School. If traditional schools want to compete, they’ll have to look to charters to see what they’re doing right.

San Diego Unified points to McKinley Elementary as the quintessential story of what can happen when a group of parents decides to reclaim their neighborhood school. But McKinley’s upswing happened amid a changing neighborhood, raising the question of whether it’s possible to turn around a school without transforming the surrounding community.