Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Q&A: O’Farrell Community School

A huge community effort creates an exceptional, well-rounded school.

May 1, 2000
Credit: Edutopia

What is the O'Farrell Community School?

How did the O'Farrell Community School get started?

What impact did O'Farrells restructuring initiative have on schoolwide organization?

How does Family Support Services (FSS) support O'Farrells mission and goals?

How has Family Support Services reached students and parents?

What steps could schools take to secure partnerships with community organizations?

What is the most difficult aspect of the Family Support Services Centers work?

What's happening today?

What is the O'Farrell Community School?

O'Farrell Community School: Center for Advanced Academic Studies in San Diego, California, is well known for successfully balancing the social, intellectual, psychological, and physical needs of its approximately 1,500 students* (grades 5-8).

In 1989, O'Farrell began a process of reinventing its program through the collaborative efforts of teachers, administrators, and the community. A legacy of this process is a rigorous curriculum and a commitment to provide support both in and out of the classroom for students, as well as their families and teachers.

One measure of O'Farrell's commitment is the presence of The Family Support Services (FSS) Center in the school's main building. FSS provides a mix of services including crisis intervention, family support and parenting education, academic tutoring and mentoring, and preventive health care. Due to the success of FSS at O'Farrell, efforts are underway to replicate the program at schools throughout the San Diego Unified School District.

* (O'Farrell has a diverse student population comprised of approximately 31 percent African-American, 37 percent Filipino; 17 percent Hispanic; 7 percent White; 5 percent Indochinese; and 2 percent Pacific Islander.)

For more information about O'Farrell Community School, visit their Web site at

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How did the O’Farrell Community School get started?

In 1989, the San Diego Unified School District instituted a pilot project that gave local schools the opportunity to work collaboratively with district personnel, teachers, staff, parents, community, and county representatives to "reinvent" themselves. O'Farrell Community School: Center for Advanced Academic Studies was selected to participate in the project.

For a year and a half, O'Farrell teachers, staff, and parents worked in partnership with San Diego County, the San Diego Unified School District, and community-based organizations and businesses to define the O'Farrell mission. Each stakeholder was asked to identify major issues they hoped to address during the restructuring process. Important themes or essential questions from these discussions were then used to organize schoolwide goals and create a plan of action.

The team worked to restructure school governance, modify the budget, improve curriculum, increase opportunities for teacher development, and implement programs and services that reflected their vision of schools as communities that develop and nurture both the academic and social/emotional needs of their students and staff.

Once the O'Farrell School mission was defined -- to attend to the social, intellectual, psychological, and physical needs of middle level youth so they will become responsible, literate, thinking, and contributing citizens -- the next critical aspect of planning entailed designing a comprehensive program that would move their mission from theory to practice. A major part of the effort focused on implementing the team's recommendations. Reinventing the school's curriculum and instructional programs meant creating an infrastructure that would support ideas initiated during the planning process. The first step was rethinking school governance and organization.

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What impact did O’Farrell’s restructuring initiative have on schoolwide organization?

To design a school that would function as a community where power was shared equally by teachers, staff, and students, the O'Farrell community agreed that the traditional roles of teacher, students, parents, and administrators had to be re-defined. A Community Council of teachers, students, staff, community members, and parents was instituted to govern schoolwide decision making, giving teachers, staff, and students greater autonomy and flexibility to implement changes needed to meet O'Farrell's newly defined goals.

Educational Families -- interdisciplinary teaching teams -- co-manage decisions regarding student discipline, scheduling, curriculum and instruction, and student assessment. The Educational Family is responsible for promoting excellence by providing all middle level students a single, academically enriched curriculum within a multi-ethnic, student-centered environment.

Each Educational Family selects a "family leader" who oversees the administrative tasks of the group. The family leader chairs family meetings, serves as the secondary contact for parents after the Homebase (Homeroom) teacher, expedites communication with other educational families, and serves as Community Council representative, or appoints a designee.

The student body (currently approximately 1,500 students) is divided into Educational Families. Within each Educational Family there are nine Homebases. Students meet daily with their Homebase teachers. In Homebase, students engage in a variety of structured activities aimed to promote the development of personal and interpersonal skills needed to effectively deal with the academic and social/emotional challenges that often impact students' academic achievement.

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How does Family Support Services (FSS) support O’Farrell’s mission and goals?

Family Support Services (FSS) supports the O’Farrell mission and institutional goals by providing psychological and social/emotional support and resources to teachers, students, and their families. Through Homebase, county-appointed social workers (school advocates) serve as the main liaison between students and their families, teachers, and the Family Support Services Center.

Mary Skrabucha, FSS Director, elaborates on this relationship: "Anything that happens, good or bad, a social or community worker from FSS is there to support each Educational Family whenever and however necessary. Teachers or parents contact family leaders and the family leader works with the FSS social worker through Homebase. If necessary we also contact outside agencies to come in and work with students or their parents."

Through on-going interaction between Educational Families and FSS social workers, the Family Support Services Center stays abreast of the needs of teachers, students, and their families. The open lines of communication between Educational Families and their FSS social worker help the Center to develop and offer programs and resources as the needs of the teachers, students, and their families change. FSS currently supports six social workers. Each FSS social worker supports two Educational Families.

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How has Family Support Services reached students and parents?

FSS hosted a series of socials for students and parents. They held pizza parties for students, sponsored a dessert hour during Open House for parents, and took the opportunity to present the Center’s programs and services at all school events. "In between the fun stuff," Skrabucha states, "kids started to hang out. After school they would drop by the offices. They recognized the center as a safe place." FSS also dedicated a portion of its wing in the school’s main building to house a Parent Center. They hoped their efforts would encourage parents and students to visit.

Despite their efforts, FSS had been in operation for almost two years before parents and students began to fully utilize the Center’s resources. According to Skrabucha, for the first few years of operation, nearly 100 percent of the referrals came from teachers. Currently both parents and teachers equally seek the support of FSS. In reflection she asserts, "It took almost three years before the program was really able to measure its effectiveness. For almost two years we were constantly asking ourselves, 'Are we really making a difference?'"

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What steps could schools take to secure partnerships with community organizations?

Key to Family Support Services' success in establishing partnerships and sponsors has been the leadership and commitment of FSS personnel to actively pursue opportunities. When creating plans, Skrabucha suggests that schools and districts consider several ideas: (1) the needs of the students and communities, (2) contracting with an experienced coordinator who is familiar with the resources and grants available in the school's area, and (3) making the school site "user-friendly."

Skrabucha asserts, "One of the things that we always have to remember is that outside agencies secure funding to provide services in certain areas. Coordinators must have an awareness of where federal and state funds are going in their communities. They must also be aggressive in their approach. Coordinators have to contact funders and let them know that your school does meet the criteria for the grant and ask ‘how can we work together to make this happen?'"

Once funds are secured and relationships are cultivated, making the school site user-friendly becomes another essential component of sustaining sponsorships. According to Skrabucha, "If you are not user-friendly, people are not going to play." She suggests that schools create a welcoming environment where stakeholders have access to a desk and a telephone. Giving sponsors a space where they feel part of the community and can do their work is an important part of maintaining relationships.

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What is the most difficult aspect of the Family Support Services Center’s work?

The most difficult but necessary part of the work, Skrabucha suggests, is maintaining on-going and consistent communication with the community. "When the needs of the community change, you have to change the programs to keep the community interested and excited about what you are doing. Once you open your doors [the work is] an ongoing process that never stops. Everything is constantly changing and so the job is constantly changing and evolving. The coordinator and staff must be flexible enough to evolve with the work."

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What's happening today?

Six funding sources, a combination of federal and state grants, district funds, and private funds, including an SB 620 Healthy Start grant and a grant from the County of San Diego Department of Social Services Community Partnership Bureau (CAP) currently supports the day-to-day operations of the Family Support Services Center. An additional twenty-five community organizations and businesses provide resources or services to O’Farrell students and families.

FSS has recently instituted an afterschool program called 6-6, which offers structured activities. They have also begun to implement a Head Start program on campus to provide low-income parents who are transitioning from welfare to work with viable and affordable childcare options.

O’Farrell is also a center for the Coalition of Essential Schools, and efforts are underway to replicate the Family Support Services program at schools throughout the San Diego Unified School District.

Skrabucha invites anyone who is interested to come and visit. "It’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel, especially when there are so many people out there willing to support your work," she says. "Besides, there is always a fresh pot of coffee brewing in the office."

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