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New Policy To Allow Parents to Choose Schools : Education: In an attempt to balance student populations and prevent the flight of families to private institutions, the policy will permit easier transfers.


WHITTIER — A small Whittier-area school district has quietly put itself on the cutting edge of educational reform by approving a plan to let parents choose which district school their children will attend.

The East Whittier City School District on Monday became one of the first county school districts to opt for open enrollment, which education reformers have praised as a strategy to stem the flight of families to private schools.

"There's been a push for parent choice, and within our own district we are trying to meet the needs of parents who want different choices," Supt. Dorothy Fagan said.

From the district's standpoint, the plan also offers a way to balance district enrollment. Some schools are crammed to capacity, while others have partly filled classes.

The new policy, which will begin as a one-year pilot program next fall, will allow students to transfer from their neighborhood schools to any of the district's 10 elementary schools or three middle schools. Parents can request a transfer simply if they want their children to benefit from a particular academic program or extra-curricular activity.

The district offers the same basic curriculum at all schools, but two schools, for example, have special reading programs. Others offer special tutoring for students who are behind in school, Fagan said.

Students from other districts will also be able to attend East Whittier schools if they get the permission of their home school district.

Requests to attend a school can be turned down if there is a shortage of space.

A number of rules govern which families get the first shot at attending a particular school. Students who live near a school get preference over students who would normally attend another school. Families with special needs, such as having to coordinate child care, also get preferred treatment. In addition, students who live in the East Whittier district are entitled to attend a school before students from outside the district.

The district will accept applications April 12-23. Families whose requests are denied can reapply in the fall. Requests will generally be granted as long as space permits, Fagan said. Parents must provide their own transportation.

Officials said they don't know how many families are likely to take advantage of open enrollment. During the 1991-92 school year, 233 students requested special transfers within the district. This year, 190 students applied for transfers within the district. The district granted most of the transfers, which were for reasons such as coordinating child care.

"We don't know whether we'll be getting more parents from outside the district or from within," Fagan said. "That's why we're trying it as a pilot program."

The open-enrollment plan was drawn up without controversy. Board members unanimously approved the proposal Monday after a 30-minute discussion before a handful of parents and district employees. A committee of parents, teachers and administrators studied open enrollment for more than a month before recommending it to the school board.

Officials hope that the plan will boost enrollment at Murphy Ranch Elementary School, which has fewer than 300 students in a school that can serve 425. The principal typically must combine more than one grade level into a single class. Murphy Ranch was once overcrowded, but enrollment plunged when the district several years ago reopened nearby Leffingwell Elementary to provide needed class space.

Other schools, such as Laurel Elementary, are filled to capacity.

Laurel Principal Laurie Eastwood said a smaller enrollment could help her offer more to students. "To me, the biggest advantage would be to have an extra classroom," Eastwood said. "I want to have a science lab. I want to have a computer lab. We want to do all these innovative things . . . but we don't have that luxury right now at all."

Four of the district's elementary schools and all three of its middle schools could absorb extra students, officials said. Enrollment is bulging mostly in the western part of the district, which has seen an influx of young families. Overall district enrollment has climbed from about 5,700 to 7,800 students since the mid-1980s but remains below the district's peak of 14,000 in 1968-69.

Officials decided not to pursue other options to balance enrollment, such as changing attendance boundaries. Boundary changes have caused heated disputes in the past.

Open enrollment has been a hot topic among educators who have championed the idea as a promising school reform effort.

Two elementary schools in Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District have offered open enrollment for several years. District officials said the two elementary schools, Gardenhill in La Mirada and Walnut in Norwalk, requested an open-enrollment policy within the district. Officials said they have no plans to expand open enrollment throughout the district.

Bassett Unified, in the San Gabriel Valley, has approved an open enrollment plan for next fall. Other California districts with open enrollment include Westminster Elementary School District in Orange County and San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento.

East Whittier officials said their open enrollment plan was a response to local needs but added that they are aware of the larger debate over the future of public education and the role that ideas such as open enrollment can play.

"Rather than leave public education and go to private schools, families should have a choice within their own neighborhoods," board member Mary Ann Wojtysiak said. "They're going to feel better about public education. They're going to be more supportive."

Community correspondent Suzan Schill contributed to this article.

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