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7 Schools Let Parents Choose Campus : Sylmar: Program, first in the Los Angeles district, promotes competition by erasing attendance boundaries.

August 23, 1993|HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One school trumpets its afternoon clubs that teach kids how to work with computers, speak Spanish or act. Another boasts of an active parent volunteer corps involved in nearly every aspect of campus life. A third promises an "attractive, well-kept campus" with a "view of the surrounding mountains."

From their blurbs in a simple-looking brochure, the schools sound like private institutions jockeying for the attention--and pocketbooks--of parents in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

But in actuality, they belong to a group of seven public elementary schools in Sylmar that have embarked on an experiment to foster healthy competition among campuses and to grant parents a measure of control over which schools their youngsters attend.

The elementary schools involved are Dyer Street, El Dorado Avenue, Gridley Street, Harding Street, Herrick Avenue, Hubbard Street and Sylmar.

For the past two months, these seven campuses have erased the rigid attendance boundaries separating them and allowed children to enroll at the schools their families choose.

The fledgling program is the first of its kind within the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District, which, like public school systems across the country, has long assigned students to campuses on the basis of where they live.

"In the past, you went to the school in your attendance area. Now we have some ways of looking at that and doing things differently," said Joyce Peyton, director of the district office that first broached the Sylmar choice plan.

The Sylmar program did not require school board approval. Three other neighborhoods were singled out by Peyton's office as possible candidates for a transfer program but only one, in South Central Los Angeles, has so far expressed interest in such an effort.

The experiment comes at a time when the concept of school choice is sweeping toward the center of political discourse in California.

Already, debate is ringing over the controversial voucher initiative on the November ballot, which would establish public school choice but also give tax-funded subsidies to parents whose children attend private or parochial schools.

Last month, two new laws were passed by the state Legislature to blunt the initiative's appeal by easing restrictions on student transfers between school districts or between campuses within a district.

The laws go into effect Jan. 1, but no transfers can occur until the 1995-96 school year.

The Sylmar options program was launched in May after a series of meetings between parents, teachers and administrators.

To assuage fears that mass migrations might upset delicate ethnic or staffing balances, the seven schools--which together serve 6,250 youngsters--were allowed to cap the number of children coming or going. The numbers range from 10 to 50 students per school, for a total of 185 slots spread among the campuses.

So far, the traffic of students between schools has been light. Only about three dozen students have opted to switch, accounting for about 20% of the available transfer slots.

However, the number may rise over the next few weeks, as the only two schools in the group not on year-round schedules get ready to open for the fall semester.

Some parents have expressed interest in returning their children to a traditional September to June calendar.

Officials say the current low number of transfers is not surprising given the timing of the program, which was hurriedly put into place mid-June, just a week or two before the end of the school year.

"It's not well-known," said Shirley Gold, assistant principal of Dyer Street School, which made 30 spaces available to new students. "But as more and more people do it, the word will spread, and parents will take advantage of it."

The low participation rate also reflects a national trend where few parents actually exercise the right to transfer their children in states and school districts that allow it. Last year, a national survey of public school parents found that 70% would not send their youngsters to another campus even when given the option.

Still, parents and educators call the Sylmar program a worthy step toward returning control of public schools to the public.

Campus officials credit the program with forcing them to take better stock of their schools and showing them where they might have to improve to keep their "customers"--parents and students--happy.

"It makes everyone sit up and take notice, from the office staff to the custodian," said Dolores Palacio, principal of El Dorado School. "Suddenly we're in the mode of marketing our school."

Indeed, at times the bilingual brochure sent to parents from the seven schools sounds like a real estate ad.

One blurb read: "Harding Street School, located in a quiet, single family dwelling area of Sylmar, has the philosophy that all students that pass through its doors can learn."

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