Real champions inspire us because we know they give everything to make a difference. Through this column, we are helping make known real champions in the lives of children and youth. At NCUST, we are thankful for all the many equity champions who are, each day, changing lives, changing schools, and changing communities.
O’Farrell Charter High School opened to serve ninth-grade students in Southeast San Diego, CA in 2010-2011. In 2015-2016, the school graduated its first senior class. During the 11 years of the school’s existence, O’Farrell has become an America’s Best Urban School Award winner, an AVID National Demonstration School, and a five-time recipient of U.S. News and World Report’s, America’s Best High School Award. O’Farrell was one of five schools featured in NCUST’s Five Practices for Improving the Success of Latino Students and is one of six schools featured in the soon-to-be-released NCUST book, When Black Students Excel: How Schools Can Engage and Empower Black Students. O’Farrell’s Latinx students and Black students outperform the overall average for all students in California on the state’s assessment in both English language arts and mathematics. In California, only 43.6% of high school graduates qualify for enrollment at California State University or University of California campuses; however, 100% of O’Farrell graduates meet these criteria AND almost 100% of O’Farrell students graduate in four years.
Principal Brian Rainey is quick to commend his team of outstanding teachers and support staff and he never misses an opportunity to brag about O’Farrell’s amazing students. Additionally, however, Principal Rainey has been a true equity champion, leading, supporting, guiding, encouraging, and persistently pursuing whatever is necessary to ensure the success of each O’Farrell student. Since the school opened, Principal Rainey has shaped programs, practices, and policies in ways that have promoted the success of all demographic groups of students in this urban high school.
O’Farrell Charter High School is structured upon the belief that all students will learn challenging academic concepts and skills if they are educated in a community that knows, values, and respects them. Unlike schools that merely express a philosophical interest in strengthening adult/student relationships, Principal Rainey has worked with teachers and support staff to structure schedules and job responsibilities to ensure that each student will feel known, valued, and respected by at least one teacher.
When students enter ninth grade, they are assigned a home-base teacher. Each home-base teacher is assigned a maximum of 30 students, and every O’Farrell teacher serves as a home-base teacher. All students meet with their home-base teacher each school day at 8:00 a.m. for 25 minutes. Students retain the same home-base teacher throughout their four high school years. Home base, however, is not a traditional advisory class during which teachers take attendance, deliver announcements, and fulfill other administrative responsibilities. Home base is designed to build, strengthen, and sustain relationships among students and between students and teachers. Home base teachers assume important roles that teachers in typical high schools are not asked to assume. For example, home-base teachers assume responsibility for meeting and getting to know the parents of their home-base students. Principal Rainey explained that each home-base teacher is the primary point of contact for students’ parents. He emphasized, “When a parent has an issue, they don’t call or email me, they call the home-base teacher.”
Additionally, home-base teachers assume responsibility for continuously monitoring the grades of their home-base students in all classes at O’Farrell. This requires teachers to maintain frequent communication with each other. In many high schools, parents do not learn that students are falling behind until the semester is ending and it is too late to intervene in ways that could ensure academic success. At O’Farrell, teachers utilize their home-base responsibilities to intervene early and work with parents, students, and teachers to ensure that students succeed in classes. Home-base teachers even serve as problem solvers and disciplinarians when their home-base students have difficulties in other classrooms.
Home base, however, is just a foundation upon which O’Farrell educators build supports for helping students achieve ambitious goals. Principal Rainey believes that if we truly intend to empower students, we cannot create policies, procedures, and rules that lead students to feel incapable of success. He explained:
I think the biggest problem in education is that people either don’t understand human nature, or they just act as if it isn’t real. Teenagers are teenagers and not widgets, and you can do things that will break them. In education, we take kids who are really struggling in mathematics and double block them in math. You want to kill their spirit and make them spend twice as much time doing the thing that makes them feel stupid? Why would you do that? We don’t understand teenagers. You would think we would remember what it was like to be a teenager.
At O’Farrell, educators have decided that empowering students to create a great life for themselves means working with teenagers in ways that motivate them to invest sustained effort. Motivating teenagers is very different from forcing students to endure repeated failures. Instead, at O’Farrell High School empowering students to create a great life for themselves means 1) leading all students to see that they can make meaningful, step-by-step academic progress, 2) teaching all students clearly and precisely what is required for them to achieve a great life for themselves (including graduation and post-secondary education), and 3) providing all students a quantity and quality of individualized support that makes step-by-step academic progress a regular experience and the attainment of post-secondary admission inevitable. O’Farrell educators acknowledge that some students might not choose to pursue education at four-year university or even a two-year college; however, they are committed to ensuring that all students will graduate well positioned to have a choice. As a true equity champion, Principal Rainey has worked with his team to structure programs, revise policies, adjust schedules, and modify roles and responsibilities in ways that lead all students (and all demographic groups of students) to succeed.
NCUST is proud to celebrate Principal Brian Rainey as a true equity champion. More can be learned about O’Farell Charter High School, Principal Rainey, and his outstanding team of educators in the soon-to-be-released book When Black Students Excel: How Schools Can Engage and Empower Black Students.
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