Thousands of parents vying to get their children into some of Los Angeles' most sought-after public schools find themselves caught in a byzantine bureaucratic process with strict racial quotas and almost insurmountable odds.
The Los Angeles Unified School District's 162 magnet schools, designed to be among the best campuses in the district, mostly are as competitive for applicants as any popular private school. Of the 66,000 applications last year, only about 16,000 new students were admitted. Applications for next year are due Friday.
The district advertises the program in a 12-page booklet called "Choices." In reality, however, L.A. Unified allows parents to select just one school. Most parents barely have a chance, let alone a choice.
"We tell parents it's a little bit of the lottery," said Sue Becker, the magnet coordinator of 32nd Street/USC Performing Arts Magnet. More than 4,000 students applied to the school last year for about 100 spots, making it by far the most popular school in the district.
The magnet program was established in 1977 as Los Angeles Unified's court-sanctioned answer to forced busing and a way to prevent racial isolation in the district. Designed to better integrate district schools, the magnet program sought to move white children into schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods, and vice versa, by luring them with specialized classes in science, communications and the arts, among other subjects.
Because of high demand, the district selects students by computer, using a complicated points system that awards more points to students whose neighborhood schools are overcrowded or located in predominantly minority neighborhoods. Under stringent racial guidelines, each magnet school should be 60% to 70% minority and 30% to 40% white.
But that system has created a number of quirky side effects. Because the district doles out points to children who have been rejected in years past, many parents try to play a game with the system, applying to longshot schools in the hope of being rejected so they can acquire points for later use. And the parents of multiracial students are counseled by some administrators on how to identify their children based on the ethnic needs of a particular school.
Now, nearly three decades after the magnet program began, approximately 53,500 students attend magnet programs. That includes about 20% of the district's Asian students and 16% of whites. Only 4.6% of Hispanic students -- the district's largest ethnic group -- are enrolled in magnet schools.
In a district where more than 90% of students are minorities, some critics wonder whether the racial breakdowns used by the magnet program have outlived their purpose.
"It's kind of ironic," said Ryane Straus, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine who is writing her dissertation on the use of magnet schools for desegregation in L.A. Unified. "We have this policy for desegregation, and now it benefits whites and Asians -- more than blacks and Latinos -- even though they are more likely to go to college anyway."
The magnet program was born at a time when integration efforts were focused on black students and white students, said Julian Betts, a professor of economics at UC San Diego who specializes in school choice issues. Like many other urban districts, Betts said, Los Angeles Unified has seen its demographics shift markedly over the last 30 years.
"The focus on black and white today seems almost quaint," he said. "In large urban districts, the percentage of students who are white is becoming markedly small. There's only so much desegregation you can do."
Because the district receives federal desegregation funds for magnets, Los Angeles Board of Education President Jose Huizar said, the system allows "some of our highest-achieving subgroups [to have] a better shot at entering into a few competitive spots."
LaVerne Patterson, the district's magnet advisor, defended the program. District officials, she said, are following the court's orders.
The office of student integration, which oversees the magnet program, prints its "Choices" brochure and application in nine languages -- Russian, Armenian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Persian, Tagalog, Spanish and English -- Patterson said, and strives to make the program more reflective of the district's demographics. Still, she said, the schools are bound by the racial guidelines. "As long as we have white and minority students, we are [considered] federally integrated," she said.
The appeal of a diverse campus is one reason that parent Janet Smith has scoped out the magnet system. "We want our kid in a school that looks like the world," said Smith, whose daughter is a third-grader at Coeur d'Alene Avenue School in Venice.