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Drawn to Magnet Schools

Each year, more L.A. parents seek refuge in programs where students outperform peers on tests. But application process, which ends today, can be complex, frustrating.

January 16, 1998|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The application process for what the Los Angeles Unified School District bills as its "exciting educational choices" could not be simpler.

The form arrives in your mailbox with your child's name, address, age and other particulars pre-printed in the appropriate blanks. All you need to do is select among 135 intriguing campus programs, turn the form in by midnight tonight and voila! enter the world of magnet schools.

Not so fast.

First there is a little matter of "priority points," which goes something like this: If your child is already in a magnet, you get 12 points; if you're on a waiting list you get four for each year of waiting; if your local school is majority minority, add four; if that local campus is overcrowded, another four; if a sibling attends the magnet you covet, another three.

Got it? You better. For every 10 parents who play the magnet lottery game, eight will lose when admission letters go out in April.

"It's a very difficult system to understand and navigate," said parent Leibl Kisel.

Kisel should know. His daughter's application to the highly gifted magnet program that shares the campus at North Hollywood High School was rejected last year because Kisel neglected to sign it, thus landing him amid nearly 10,000 applicants that L.A. Unified turned away on such technicalities.

And since it was Kisel's own error that doomed him, he didn't even get rejection points to boost his chances of getting Yael into that magnet this year. "The chances," he acknowledges morosely, "are slim to none."

Every year more parents in Los Angeles and other big cities seek the refuge of magnet schools, a two-decade-old integration effort in which selected campuses offer specialized curricula ranging from math to law to foreign language. The goal is to attract (like a magnet) a racially balanced student body--particularly those relatively few whites who remain in the 89% minority district.

It's not clear whether magnets are better because of their structure or simply because they host a higher concentration of motivated students and parents. But they are among the best campuses that urban systems have to offer, outperforming regular public schools on academic tests.

This growing awareness creates magnet fever among parents early each year, leading to some desperate practices--several of which favor more sophisticated parents.

For example, knowing that it may take 20 priority points to qualify for the most crowded programs, some parents intentionally apply to overbooked magnet schools year after year, simply to gain waiting points. Others rush to get children as young as 5 tested by district psychologists for the most elite magnets, which serve intellectually gifted students.

Last year in Los Angeles, 70,000 people applied for 13,000 magnet school slots. If this were a capitalist system, supply would simply increase to meet demand. But the magnet system is far more rigid, because its goal is satisfying court rulings, not the marketplace.

"It's a pseudo-private school education at public expense," said Christine Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University who has studied magnet schools extensively. "What you see a lot of places is because there's this huge demand, the school district gives into that demand and gives up on racial balance."

Parents like Kisel struggle to understand why whatever works at magnets cannot be cloned.

"Why is it that the LAUSD can do it for the magnets and not for the rest of the kids?" he asked. "And is it really fair to do it only for magnets?"

Small Supply, Much Demand

Figuring out which magnet to pick by relying solely on L.A. Unified's magnet brochure, which for two years has been mailed to every district parent, can be a dizzying exercise in eduspeak.

Magnets range from the Banning High School Math/Science College Incentive magnet to the tiny business-oriented Fashion Careers High School downtown. They include the very focused zoo magnet located at North Hollywood High and two popular Centers for Enriched Studies campuses--one in the Mid-City area, the other in Sherman Oaks, that emphasize "creative/critical thinking."

The brochure gives a hint of the supply/demand ratio by comparing the number of last year's admissions to this year's openings for each school, but those numbers can be misleading.

Last year in Van Nuys, Valley Alternative School had an avalanche of applications--more than 1,200 for 100 kindergarten spaces. The reason? Word was out on the preschool circuit: As one of only three kindergarten magnets--and the only one in the San Fernando Valley--it was a good place to collect four wait list points that would give parents a boost the next year when they filed first-grade applications to other magnets.

Ask parents how they learned these unwritten rules and they mention other parents, teachers, even principals as sources.

Kisel got the skinny on North Hollywood High way back when his daughter was attending Carpenter Elementary's gifted classes, which are not part of a magnet.

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