Rosalia Hurtado wanted a school that could send her child to college. She lives nearby Morse High School, in southeastern San Diego, but she didn’t like what she saw.

She watches in the afternoons as students leave school. They cuss. They’re disrespectful. They fight. They don’t allow her to pass by on the sidewalk, she says.

Academics might scoff at the notion that it’s a school’s job to instill values like respect and courtesy. For Hurtado, it topped the list.

“If your child has respect, that means your house has respect,” she said.

Monique Brooks, a parent from Lemon Grove, wanted a school where her son was treated fairly – not singled out or punished more harshly than his classmates. Where he was safe from the violence that plagues nearby schools. A school where she felt welcomed walking into the front office and teachers cared as much about her son’s emotional well-being as they did about his grades.

“I just never felt that warmth and love at my other school,” said Brooks.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Hurtado, Brooks and a growing number of parents have found what they were looking for at The O’Farrell Charter School.

O’Farrell, in Encanto, used to be a traditional neighborhood school.

In 1994, it converted to a charter school – schools that are publicly funded but independently run. O’Farrell and other charters aren’t bound to the same rules as traditional public schools when it comes to hiring and firing, and are free to create their own policies when it comes to discipline or curriculum. O’Farrell is overseen by a board of directors. It receives its funding directly from the state and is, literally, a mini school district.

Charter schools have open boundaries, meaning students from any ZIP code can apply. O’Farrell takes students from nine different school districts.

Still, roughly 90 percent of its students come from within a three-mile radius, blurring the line between charter schools and “neighborhood schools,” which is what San Diego Unified calls traditional public schools it manages.

Over the years, as O’Farrell expanded, its students found a stable environment that hangs onto teachers and administrators. That stability shows up in a variety of measures. Test scores at O’Farrell stand notably higher than those of nearby neighborhood schools.

But high academics are only part of what draws parents to the school. In interviews with VOSD, parents mentioned caring teachers, a sense of discipline and a welcoming environment. But one feature stood out above the rest: safety.

O’Farrell 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.

To Hurtado, parent of a seventh grader at O’Farrell, all that really matters is that she found a school that would take her daughter “all the way” – to college, and beyond. Her daughter can’t afford to wait for San Diego Unified to address the problems at its neighborhood schools.

Until Lincoln and nearby neighborhood schools learn to replicate some of what’s been working for O’Farrell and other charters drawing large numbers of local students, they’re likely to lose more students.

‘A Low Suspension Rate Doesn’t Necessarily Mean a School Is Safer’

High academics, safety, a personalized environment – all of it’s happening on a campus with some of the most pointed discipline policies in San Diego.

To Jonathan Dean, O’Farrell’s superintendent, clear, consistent consequences for misbehavior is part and parcel of holding students accountable, keeping schools safe and supporting his teachers.

At O’Farrell, discipline is a progressive process. After a warning, a first infraction could earn a student 20 minutes of detention. A second, they must come to school on a Friday night. A third means a parent conference and a day of in-school suspension, spent doing actual classwork. Next, students must come to school on Saturday. Parents are notified at every step of the process.

Barring severe violations, only after this point does O’Farrell move toward out-of-school suspension. If students rack up 10 or more suspensions, they could be expelled. Dean said the vast majority of students never make it past step two. If students go three weeks without an infraction, the slate is wiped clean.

No other school talks so openly of how it responds to misbehavior. The approach stands in stark contrast to the direction San Diego Unified has gone in recent years.

With the growing awareness that students of color are overrepresented in school discipline data, San Diego Unified – along with many other school districts – has moved toward softer, less punitive discipline policies. Misbehavior that could have earned students out-of-school suspension in years past may now result in a “talking circle,” where adults facilitate conversations with students to identify the thoughts and feelings behind their actions.

Some of that has resulted in lower suspension rates. But where social justice advocates see promise, Dean sees concern.

“I think you’re going to see more and more backlash from teachers who say misbehavior is going unchecked. It’s already started to happen. I think people are getting restorative justice wrong. A low suspension rate doesn’t necessarily mean a school is safer. It might just mean they’ve taken away the consequences,” Dean said.

Earlier this month, even as Fresno Unified officials praised one high school for bringing down suspension rates, its teachers were circulating a petition demanding stricter and more consistent discipline policies.

“There is not a well-defined plan for dealing with student misbehavior, discipline is not consistently enforced, and there is a lack of communication on disciplinary issues,” reads the petition.

“Students are returned to class without consequence after assaulting teachers, both verbally and physically. When students face no accountability measures, it undermines the authority of all teachers, and creates a negative campus culture.”

Despite changes to discipline policies at Lincoln High, violence continues to roil the campus.

Based on behavior reports from Lincoln, between February 2012 and February 2016, more than 250 students were involved in fights with other students or assaults on teachers.

In 2012, a student ran out of class, ran around campus, knocked over six trash cans and tried to jump a fence with a 10-foot drop. When a staff member tried to restrain her, she kicked and swung at the staff member. Four days later, another student punched and attempted to kick her teacher multiple times.

In 2014, one student tried to stab another boy in the school bathroom. The victim grabbed the knife, cutting his hand in the process.

In 2015, a “play fight” at lunch – an activity that staff allowed to go on for years, despite the fact it had led to fights multiple times before – escalated to an actual fight. When a school police officer tried to confront a student in the parking garage, the student hit him multiple times in the head.

School officials have been unable to eliminate or drastically reduce the violence at Lincoln. Indeed, by this year, it seemed the violence had been normalized. At most schools, back-to-school night gives parents a chance to meet with teachers and principals. Lincoln’s back-to-school night this year allowed students and parents a chance to meet with police officers.

It’s a different world at O’Farrell. During the same time frame at O’Farrell, only 13 students were involved in fights, according to data provided by the school. O’Farrell recorded no assaults on school employees or teachers.

Of course, that sets O’Farrell up for one of the biggest criticisms against charter schools – that they suspend or expel kids at higher rates than traditional district schools.

A VOSD story from 2010 detailed the account of a former O’Farrell student who was expelled for consequences that wouldn’t be expulsion-worthy at traditional district schools. (Dean said the school has since worked with San Diego Unified to better align its discipline policies with the district’s).

For better or worse, charters and traditional public schools don’t play by the same rules. But, in a way, that’s also the point.

Charter schools are free to create their own schoolwide policies, so long as they’re in accordance with state law. If parents or students take exception to O’Farrell’s policies, they have the option of returning to their assigned neighborhood schools.

Discipline policies at charter schools still must be approved by the school district. Charters must include their plans for suspensions and expulsions within their initial petitions to open. School districts, which in most cases decide whether to greenlight or deny charters, have to sign off on those plans.

California Department of Education data shows O’Farrell’s suspension and expulsion rates are on par with schools that have similar demographics. A higher percentage of O’Farrell students stay through all four years of high school, compared with San Diego Unified high schools.

Regardless, the push to soften discipline policies can run counter to what parents actually search for in a school. That is, some parents in southeastern San Diego are choosing O’Farrell precisely for its stringent discipline policies.

“I hear that a lot,” said Dean. “I think parents equate discipline with safety.”

And it’s not just O’Farrell. Jenny Parsons, chief financial officer at nearby Gompers Preparatory Academy, said many parents are attracted to that school’s clear-cut discipline policies.

“I think they see it as an extension of the values they try to instill in the home,” Parsons said.

Consistency Is Crucial

When it comes to school discipline, many tend to think of suspensions, expulsions and discipline hearings. But principals and teachers at O’Farrell describe discipline as a natural byproduct of O’Farrell’s stable environment.

It starts in kindergarten.

One recent morning in Shannon Dailey’s class, 24 kindergarteners sat on a carpet in neat, orderly rows. Before Dailey opened a book, she reminded them: “OK, class. Listening with your whole bodies. Remember?”

“Eyes, ears, mouth, bodies!” the kindergarteners chanted in response. Eyes stay fixed on Dailey as she opened a book and started to read. Every few minutes she paused, asking students to look at pictures and draw on context clues to predict what will happen next.

How does a teacher get a room full of kindergarteners to focus on the same thing?

“It really comes down to establishing expectations and routines,” said Jill Andersen, an O’Farrell principal. “We spend a lot of time teaching behavior and expectations. You start the routine at the beginning of the year and you just practice over and over until it’s ingrained.”

Andersen said it doesn’t take new students long to adjust to behavioral expectations. Getting new students on par academically, on the other hand, can take a bit more time.

Dean said students who start at O’Farrell when they’re in kindergarten do just fine. But he said a lot of students who transfer to O’Farrell after sixth grade come in reading at a second-grade level, and those students often need a more attention.

“And when I say a lot, I mean the majority,” Dean said.

It’s a trend that area schools know well. Earlier this year, a district administrator shocked parents when she said a significant number of students are showing up to Lincoln High school reading at a second-grade level. Wendell Bass, Lincoln’s principal in the mid- to late-‘90s, said he noticed the same trend 20 years ago.

O’Farrell gets those same students and faces the same challenge: how to get them caught up to their peers.

Teachers schoolwide embrace AVID – a set of strategies that stress organization, study skills and college-going habits. AVID isn’t officially part of the curriculum until students reach middle school, but the strategies thread through all grade levels.

Anderson said AVID alone isn’t going to close the gap for students who come in years behind their peers. Instead, those students replace one of their electives with a class period they spend in small groups, learning and practicing reading skills, like how to recognize the sound of words.

“In the early years, students are learning to read. After third grade, they’re reading to learn. If students come in reading at such a low level, they focus on (reading) before they do anything else,” she said.

This is true for all students, but especially important for students who aren’t native English speakers – whom Andersen said account for a large share of those who arrive behind in reading.

Teachers in the same grade level have the same planning time, which allows them to look to data to identify students who are falling behind and discuss strategies to bring them up to speed.

But staff members say the heart of the program is building relationships between teachers and families.

Starting in middle school, students are assigned a “home base teacher” who serves as a first point of contact for families, makes sure students are organized and on track and even doles out discipline for misbehavior.

Each home base teacher is assigned a group of students, which stays the same for three years of middle school. Students get a new home base teacher when they reach high school, whom they stick with all four years.

Principal Brian Rainey said home base teachers form close bonds with students – in some cases they even take on the role of a surrogate parent.

In Chantal Blakeney’s 12th grade English class, a picture of her home base students, taken at prom, hangs on the wall. Seniors are on task, responding thoughtfully to Blakeney’s prompts. Not a single student talks out of turn or slumps, disengaged, during class. No teacher at O’Farrell can match the test score improvements Blakeney has coaxed out of her students, Rainey said.

“This type of classroom management doesn’t just happen organically,” Rainey said. “It’s a product of years of work and relationship building that happens in elementary and middle school. Students are figuring out boundaries along the way. By the time they get to high school, they know what’s expected.”

Rainey said high test scores are a byproduct of having students stay in a small, personalized environment all 13 years of school.

Last year, 78 percent of 11th graders at O’Farrell’s exceeded or met state standards in Language Arts, surpassing nearby schools and both the district and county average.



Math scores aren’t quite as high. Forty-seven percent of O’Farrell’s 11th graders met or exceeded standards. That’s still higher than nearby schools as well as the district and county average.


“Most high schools should be our size,” Rainey said. About 1,700 students attend O’Farrell, but only 500 students attend the high school. “The bigger you go, the more chances students have to fall through the cracks. Every student here is known and loved. There are no cracks to fall through. Nobody flies under the radar.”

O’Farrell’s successes show that there are some things working for charters that traditional schools might never be able to replicate – at least not on a large scale. San Diego Unified, for example, isn’t likely to shut down all of its elementary, middle and high schools in favor of singular institutions that students attend for all 13 years of their education.

Yet O’Farrell almost certainly offers other lessons that nearby schools could look to learn from.

That would be in line with the original niche charter schools were designed to fill: freed from some of the same constraints that govern district managed schools, charter schools were envisioned as incubators of innovation that would find best practices and share them with other schools.

Assigning teachers to serve as points of contact with families is one way to create a communication link between school and home. That structure also allows teachers, students and families to build relationships before problems crop up.

And, if problems do arise, O’Farrell shows the value of posting clear-cut consequences for misbehavior, delivered with consistency. Not only does it appear effective for curbing behavior – multiple teachers at O’Farrell cite it as a top reason they feel supported by administration.

“There’s no gray area for what should happen if students aren’t following directions,” said Andrea Sweetser, a third-grade teacher at O’Farrell. “When problems come up, I always feel like administrators have my back. At my previous school, I didn’t feel like I even got to have an opinion. Here, admin always listens to what I have to say and I am part of the process.”

Parents seem to appreciate the school’s approach. Brooks, whose son attends O’Farrell, thinks many people are still missing the point when it comes to school discipline.

“I think it starts when we use the word ‘punishment’ instead of ‘consequences,’” Brooks said. “When kids think of punishment, they think of sitting in the back of a cop car. But there are consequences for everything we do, both good and negative. It’s important for kids to grasp that.”

    This article relates to: Charter Schools, Education, Neighborhood Schools, School Discipline

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    Fred Picasso
    Fred Picasso

    Strict discipline is needed in SUHSD as a student posts a picture of his penis on social media, where it is seen by students district wide. This student was only suspended for one day, comes back to school accusing his teachers of talking about his penis in class. The teachers, who said NOTHING get reprimanded by the principal. Something still stinks at SUHSD. Teachers need support with classroom discipline. Teachers need to be valued and appreciated. At Sweetwater Union High School District teachers are being abused. What happened to our neighborhood school? They got principals who support disruptive behavior and blame the teachers.

    John Kennett
    John Kennett subscriber

    Always happy to see reports of successful schools and happy parents. This fits right into the Trumpworld narrative. Is O'Farrell an advertiser on VOSD? Just asking .

    David Thatcher
    David Thatcher

    1) What is driving success at O'Farrell? Pedagogy? Stringent discipline? Parent communication and involvement? May I suggest it's the latter. My child is doing very well at a public school that isn't stringent in discipline nor progressive in pedagogy because of parent communication and involvement. You get that down, and everything else will conform to shared expectations between school and home. Simple as that.

    2) Charter schools are, by definition, schools of choice. There has to be a modicum of parent involvement for the child just to get in the door. Public schools will always serve the kids whose parents don't pay a lot of attention to their education. Guess which group of kids is likely to do better? The ones with parent involvement. This is why the public schools in poor neighborhoods end up struggling.

    3) Charter schools don't have to serve everyone in the community. Public schools do. The handful of good charter schools in SD county will be difficult if not impossible to get into for most families who won't get picked by the lottery. (State laws require a charter schools to pick in a random lottery.) This point is where I have the most trouble with charter schools. The crappy charters are easy to get into, the public schools HAVE to take you, and the good charters will wait list you to death.

    --Also where I have a problem with the voucher system. You think all the good private schools are suddenly going to absorb struggling kids from other schools? No. You'll have a whole new crop of private schools pop up with most of them being crappy for-profits and doing a worse job than the schools they came from. The good private schools that will pop up in response to a voucher system will be inaccessible to most students because they'll either cherry-pick or run a lottery like the charters.

    Dennis James
    Dennis James subscriber

    Great article. Thank you.

    If a traditional school and charter school do exactly the same job educating the same group of students, which is better? Charter. Why? Because a charter can be relatively quickly closed or re-organized to improve outcomes. Traditional schools just can't or won't do that, so the misery can last decades.  

    bgetzel subscriber

    Teaching methods are one of the keys. If teachers can make school interesting and fun (don't scoff), more kids will learn and behave. The key to doing those things are flexibility in how the curriculum is implimented and the selection of hard working, innovative teachers. Unfortunately those two elements are often negatively impacted by the teaher's union in public schools. The inability to do things differently and get rid of teachers who are ineffective, makes teacher unions one of the road blocks to improving public education. 

    My grandkids went to Hitech Chula Vista, a charter school that runs from kindergarten through high school. I, therefore, saw the innovative teaching and calm/safe atmosphere of the school first-hand. The school had a no tolerance policy with regard to drugs and any type of violence (we are talking expulsion in those instances) and teahers worked long hours in lesson plan preparation. Those few teachers who were not doing well, were fired.  Broadly speaking, that is how a school should be run.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Interesting Mario. Remember a couple years back your story about Esther Omogbehin who tried to implement these same clear, consistent consequences for misbehavior as principal of Lincon?

    That didn't go over too well with the teachers,unions or the district did it?

    Omogbehin was asked to leave by school board member Marne Foster with the help of Cindy Martin.

    Yes indeed, the district has proved over and over "its for the children"


    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    "To Jonathan Dean, O’Farrell’s superintendent, clear, consistent consequences for misbehavior is part and parcel of holding students accountable, keeping schools safe and supporting his teachers."

    what a novel approach. Perhaps it should be a model

    Ted Gyles
    Ted Gyles

    Good story.  But those scores are a little understated.  There aren't just better than Lincoln, Morse, and Gompers.  Why doesn't anyone publish these scores side by side anymore?  Standardized test scores aren't everything, but they matter.

    Those English scores are higher than a lot of schools, like La Jolla High School (74%) where the average household income is over $150,000.  And those math scores are higher than several schools like Point Loma (39%) where they average income is $94,000.  For reference the average household income in Enacanto is $64,000.  Underprivileged kids outperforming privileged kids.  Huh.

    CA math and English scores:

    Lauren Ramers
    Lauren Ramers

    @Ted Gyles Thanks for posting a link to scores so that we can all compare how schools are doing. The O'Farrell scores demonstrate that over time students, grades 6-11, show growth in ELA and math. Most of the students enter the middle school in grade 6 (about 60 come up from the elementary school, and that is only a fraction of the 300 in each MS class) - through a public lottery (no screening). The letter of intent is a simple form to fill out with mostly demographic data and contact information - no more hoops to jump through to enroll students than what public schools require. I have one student in public school and one in a charter, so I can tell you that from our experience. 

    The students who enter O'Farrell are from the surrounding neighborhood, and most of them walk to school. There is never a silver bullet when it comes to creating great schools. However, common-core aligned curriculum, powerful research-based instruction, teachers who dedicate countless hours to supporting student success, after-school programs that engage students beyond the regular school day and policies and procedures that maintain order to keep the students safe are strategies that work, and I believe help to create the kind of success we see at O'Farrell. It is not magic. It is common sense, smart educational practice.

    francesca subscriber

    Mario, I'd like to get more facts about how children are admitted to O'Farrell and how many go back to Morse and Lincoln when suspended for misbehavior. 

    I'd recommend to those interested, an article, "Charter School Achievement: Hype vs. Evidence" at, a program of the Education Law Center.

    Less anecdotal, more based on studies of the charter school data.

    The test scores at O'Farrell tell me that these children are not random selection or lottery...even though they may use a lottery.

    Oh...never mind,  with Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, we'll all be taking our vouchers to La Jolla Country Day.

    David subscriber

    @francesca There you are! I just took the time to inform myself by looking at their lottery form/process on the webpage. You enter your student's name and grade. There are no demographic questions, no special needs questions, no essay - just enter name. Also, I see that this is a 100% free and reduced lunch and 100% minority  -  Look at their website, but I think you already now this:). 

    francesca subscriber

    @Dennis James 

    Thanks, Dennis.  Interesting article.

    So many studies done...Charter vs. Public School...

    I even found an article from the National Education Policy Center that questioned the conclusions in the article you referenced, the study done by CREDO.

    "Time to Stop CREDO Worship"..describing flaws in their results.

    Studies aside, any school, that can screen applicants before admitting them, then expel children who don't behave, will have better results on tests.  

    Public schools can't do that.  

    Lauren Ramers
    Lauren Ramers

    @francesca O'Farrell has a public lottery. Parents fill out a letter of intent that is a one page form asking for contact information. There is no screening, no essays, tests, or auditions. Students are selected at random. They are informed by mail if they are selected by the lottery, and then they fill out the rest of the enrollment paperwork that all schools require. My daughter attends our local neighborhood elementary public school, and our son attends O'Farrell. We selected this school for him because of its nationally-recognized AVID program and for its academic program. While I understand that some charters may operate differently, I can assure you from our personal experience that O'Farrell runs an extremely legitimate lottery process. The vast majority of O'Farrell students are local to the neighborhood, and their test scores reflect their abilities when challenged with rigorous curriculum supported by outstanding instruction--we have some of the best teachers in the country at our school. Curriculum is aligned TK-12, and collaboration is the heart of the instructional practice. The policies around safety and discipline are there to ensure that students have a safe, supportive environment in which they can learn. The test scores demonstrate that the longer students are with this school, the more they improve and show growth. Quite frankly, any school could replicate what O'Farrell does, and the school is happy to share its successes.

    francesca subscriber

    @Lauren Ramers 

    Thanks for replying, Lauren.

    Sounds like it's not the admission lottery that makes the difference.  Does it take place in a public place with all applicants names included and parents in attendance?

    "Challenged with rigorous curriculum"?  What test do the children take and how aligned is the curriculum with the test?

    "Outstanding instructors", "Some of the best teachers in the country"...How are they different from public school teachers and specifically what do they do?

    "Collaboration, safety, discipline"...How is it different from other schools and how many children are asked to leave O'Farrell based on behavior?

    You chose the school because of the "Avid Program" but this program was started at Clairemont High and is used at most/all of the high schools.

    Don't mean to criticize, just get more information, so these amazing practices can be duplicated in all schools.

    David subscriber

    Very interesting story. I like the graphs and quantified data. I have heard for the last several years that this school academically surpasses many schools with similar student demographics. It will be interesting to see the comments by the anti-student folks - I mean the anti-charter folks. Where are you Richard?:) Great job Mario.