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Magnet Schools Demonstrate Pull : Specialized Programs Evolve Into Popular Alternatives for Many Students

September 25, 1986|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | Gray is a Van Nuys free-lance writer

Each weekday morning 34 buses arrive at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, depositing students from every corner of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

There, they juggle a complex schedule that involves six periods of classes on Mondays, and alternating three-period schedules on the other days of the week.

Required courses include all the basics, as well as study habits and techniques, computer orientation, creative writing and communication skills. Electives range from oceanography to still-life painting, computer programming, speech, debate, police science and theater production.

There is a decidedly special atmosphere at the center. Some of the teachers have known students more than eight years, since the the school opened in 1978.

"It's a small-town school in a big city," said Diane Honda, who teaches journalism and chorus.

The Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (CES) is one of 84 magnet schools in the district, and one of 22 in the San Fernando Valley. With 1,580 students, CES is one of the largest magnets. (All the schools together have a total enrollment of only 25,000, about 4% of the district's total).

Popular Alternatives

The magnets are clearly popular alternatives to the fairly straight-forward and basic programs at most public schools, and offer the kind of specialized curriculum Valley parents can pay as much as $5,000 a year for at private schools.

Last year there were about 27,000 applications districtwide, competing for 8,800 spaces, according to Richard Battaglia, who coordinates the magnet school program for the school district. The waiting list at CES is 1,500.

"The magnet school is the biggest bargain the parent can get in education," said CES Principal Eli Brent.

The range of magnet schools and centers in the Valley runs from alternative schools offering open structure and independent learning to fundamental schools that adhere to strict academic standards and strict dress codes.

There are specialty magnets for gifted and highly gifted children and special-interest magnets that focus on computer science and mathematics, humanities, animal and biological sciences, television, theater and fine arts and performing arts.

Dates From 1977

In 1977, four alternative schools and three pilot project magnets became the first magnet schools in the district. According to Battaglia, "The most dramatic moment was in 1981, under Proposition 1, when mandatory busing was ended in Los Angeles. We had 10,000 applications for the magnets in '80, 13,000 in '81, and, each year, the number of applications continues to increase by about 3,000."

The key to the success of the magnets doesn't seem to be the financing. The schools receive only $50 per student per year to enhance the school's specialty and to foster multicultural activities. The cost of transportation is far greater. Battaglia puts the cost at $1,000 for each student a year.

The transportation poses some problems for the students.

Jennifer Levine, 15, of Woodland Hills, has been in a magnet school ever since she was in third grade. If she could make one change in the magnet program, she said, she would make the magnet schools start later.

"I have to get up at 5:25, and leave home at 6:20," said Jennifer, "just to get to North Hollywood High by 7:30."

Jennifer, a student in the Animal and Biological Science Center program with the Los Angeles Zoo, then leaves North Hollywood High and goes to and from the zoo twice each day, which amounts to another 80 minutes of travel.

North Hollywood High's magnet program has 250 students and 10 teachers, and offers a curriculum that includes courses in genetics, animal studies and the physical sciences.

"It's great being right there at the zoo," said Dorothy Chaing Van Horn, coordinator the program, "because the kids can go out and feel the biomes, the feathers and the bones."

Students choose either a technical or a pre-college track, and combine a variety of hands-on experiences with their classroom work.

As Sabrina Cheng, 17, of Sherman Oaks said, "There's the feeling that it's not just plain learning. With the people from the zoo coming in, you catch the love of what they are doing. It's contagious."

Pacoima Junior High school offers two magnet programs, one in math and computer science and one in television, theater and fine arts. The math and computer science program offers courses to 161 students in computer programming and operations, algebra, geometry and logic, using 21 computers.

Tailored to Entertainment

The television, theater and fine arts (TFA) magnet has 240 students and 12 teachers this year, and boasts its own television and radio recording studio. Some students are new to the field, and others have had professional experience in commercials, voice-overs, television and movies. Students learn everything from stage crew to operation of the video camera and control panels. The students study improvisation, drama, dance and screen writing.

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