Smith said her daughter is happy at her elementary school, which has the cultural and economic diversity the family desires. But she worries about her daughter's options for middle school. So each year, she has applied to the most desirable magnet schools in the hope of accumulating enough rejection points to make the move when the time is right.
Smith found out about the magnet program the way most parents do in the nation's second-largest school district: through other parents. "If I hadn't been told about it, I might not have understood it was an option," she said. "A lot of parents who have never heard of magnets never think to work this aspect of the public school system."
Other parents have similar criticisms. They say the "Choices" brochure is complicated and not at all user-friendly. Because parents select only one school for their child, some believe they are caught in a make-or-break situation. So they rely on other parents for help in working the system to their advantage and for information about popular -- and academically challenging -- magnet schools.
One such place is Community Magnet School in Bel-Air. Each day, 10 buses carry students from around Los Angeles to the brightly colored school, which boasts high test scores, small classes and a corps of adult volunteers. Last year, Community School received 31 applications for each of the 40 kindergartners it admitted.
Principal Pamela Marton said the school's staff works hard to attract a diverse applicant pool. They send out fliers in Spanish and English to at least 100 preschools in the city, hold orientation days in the school auditorium and field calls in English, Korean and Spanish from prospective parents.
"There are a lot of schools out there," Marton said. "And parents have many choices. Still, I wonder how many apply not to get in."
Briyana Lusis, 13, has been enrolled in Los Angeles Unified magnet schools ever since kindergarten. A student at Millikan Middle School Performing Arts Magnet in Sherman Oaks -- which gives her some advantage in applying -- she still faces stiff competition to get into the Cleveland Humanities magnet in Reseda. "It looks like a really good school," said the eighth-grader. Last year, Cleveland had 622 applicants for 220 spaces.
"Me and my friends are really nervous," Briyana said. "We really want to get in together. We keep on talking about it and stuff."
Janis Burges, assistant principal at Bravo Medical Magnet, near County-USC Medical Center, said that each year, her office hears mostly from parents desperate to get their children into the magnet program. They call the school, which last year received 1,605 applicants for 450 spots, and try their best to convince the staff to circumvent the computer-generated acceptance list.
"They call and they beg and they try and offer us food or whatever," Burges said. "But we are not allowed.... We have to say politely, 'There's nothing we can do.' "
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Los Angeles Unified's magnet school program was established in 1977 as a court-approved integration program. The schools' racial-ethnic composition as of 2004-05:
% of all LAUSD students: 72.8%
% all magnet students: 46.5%
% of all LAUSD students: 11.6%
% all magnet students: 19.2%
% of all LAUSD students: 9.0%
% all magnet students: 20.0%
% of all LAUSD students: 3.8%
% all magnet students: 10.2%
% of all LAUSD students: 2.2%
% all magnet students: 3.6%
% of all LAUSD students: 0.6%
% all magnet students: 0.6%
May not total 100% due to rounding.