YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Pull of Magnets : Education: Poor test scores and the loss of top students prompt a flurry of applications by Los Angeles Unified schools to join special programs.


Motivated by falling test scores and the loss of high-achieving students, 18 schools--three times the number that typically apply--want to become part of the highly prized magnet system in the L.A. Unified School District.

The schools hope to offer specialized courses ranging from Latin music to journalism and media technology.

Magnets--considered the gems of the school system--offer smaller classes, more money for special activities and facilities and a handpicked faculty. Students must apply for entrance and the competition is stiff. Application brochures are available beginning today at all schools and Los Angeles public libraries.

But while the pull of the magnets is strong, lack of funds could prevent many schools from achieving their goals. The smaller classes and enrichment activities cost more money.

Because the students and teachers choose magnets--and are not just assigned to them--principals of schools that have applied for that status say magnets have lower absenteeism, higher staff morale, more involved parents, higher test scores.

"Our test scores are going down, down, down," said Jan Walsh, the principal at Gledhill Elementary in North Hills. "We feel something is needed. We have to find something to turn these kids around. We're in a desperate situation."

The magnets also could attract students who plan to leave regular schools. Across the district, principals say they lose some of their high-achieving students to magnets. About 38,000 students apply to magnets every year for about 9,500 openings.

"I lose many good kids," said Marilyn Erickson, the principal at Haskell Elementary in Granada Hills, which wants to specialize in math, science and technology. "It would be a way of keeping kids at my school and provide a program for parents who want magnet schools for their children."

At Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, which is proposing to offer performing arts courses, Principal Pete Ferry said the campus could tap parents who work in the entertainment industry for support. Students at the school already are excited about the prospect.

"One boy told me he has to check with his agent to see if he could do these kinds of things for free," Ferry said. "But there's a lot of interest."

Millikan also loses students to magnets and other campuses, Ferry said. The magnet center could attract students to the campus. "We're trying to plug up the drain," Ferry said.


But whatever their intentions, the principals have a tough hurdle ahead. The Board of Education must approve their requests, and limited funding could be the death blow for schools' plans. The board probably will consider the applications in the next few weeks.

Board member Julie Korenstein, whose daughter attended magnets, said the problem is strictly financial. "I wish I could make every school a magnet," Korenstein said. "It's going to be a tough choice with the limited amount of funding we have."

Korenstein represents the board district with the most magnet students--8,086. She also has the most students on the district's waiting list--6,367. The district expects to receive about 38,000 applications for the 108 magnets next year.

"Wherever they are and whatever they specialize in, students are doing better," Korenstein said.

The district receives about 80% of the magnet funding from the state. A one-time, $10-million federal grant is paying in part for the math and science magnets.

That grant could be another reason for the increased number of schools applying to be magnets. "When there's money and the word goes out, applications start coming in," said school board President Leticia Quezada. "My preference is to establish the spirit and the environment in all our schools.

"The greatest benefit will be when all our schools become much more like our magnets," Quezada said.

Created during the divisive busing battles in the late 1970s, magnets are intended to provide students from throughout the sprawling district with smaller, integrated and more specialized educational programs.

Many principals believe the change will benefit parents who are seeking a better education for their children.

"Magnets carry an aura of superior programs and instruction," said Merle Price, principal of Palisades High School in Pacific Palisades. "With all the recent concern about the quality of public education, I think there's a built-in constituency."

Added Anna McLinn, principal of Marvin Avenue Elementary in West Los Angeles: "I think it's a last chance for our district. To me, it's the answer to low test scores."

District officials caution schools that becoming a magnet takes commitment and the desire on the part of the staff to make the change.

"You can't just pin a label on the school door," said Richard Battaglia, who oversees the district's magnet program. "Doing a good job in a magnet takes work."

Aside from students, teachers also select magnets. Principals interview and hire teachers who are interested in their specific programs. At Granada Hills High, which opened a magnet last year, 60 teachers applied for seven openings.

After a month's delay, the magnet brochure and application--called "Choices"--is available, and the deadline is April 15. Students currently enrolled in magnets are given priority along with siblings of magnet students and those whose names already are on the waiting list.

If any new magnets are approved, a supplemental application and brochure will be printed, officials said.

Los Angeles Times Articles