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In Search of Safe Harbor, Parents Look Beyond Neighborhood Schools

While San Diego Unified – along with many other school districts – has moved toward softer, less punitive discipline policies in recent years, some parents in southeastern San Diego are choosing The O’Farrell Charter School precisely for its stringent discipline policies.

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.

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.

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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.

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“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.”

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