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Mixed Results for L.A.'s Magnet Schools

The programs have been academically successful but often come up short as a tool for integration.

January 20, 2006|Sandy Banks | Times Staff Writer

By day's end, the parents of more than 60,000 children will have made their pitch to get into a magnet school, and Los Angeles Unified School District officials will begin sorting the requests by interest, by grade and, most important, by race.

Only one in four students will be accepted. Others will be left wondering if they have been unfairly left on the sidelines by a 30-year-old process created for a district that no longer exists.

The schools were supposed to be magnets for educational excellence, attracting motivated students to integrated campuses outside of their neighborhoods.

When magnets were launched in 1976, almost 40% of the district's students were white, about one-third Latino and one-quarter black. Magnet schools were required to reflect that balance in a district facing a court order to desegregate.

Today, magnets, as a group, are considered the best schools in a district mostly known for its problems. What many are not, however, is well-integrated. In today's district, fewer than one in 10 students is white. And magnets have emerged as a way of keeping the middle class in public schools.

The best magnets have demonstrated that high-quality, specialized schools can attract families of all ethnicities from throughout the sprawling district. They offer a variety of disciplines tailored to student interests, and attract more than 60,000 applications every year for 15,000 or so open slots. The deadline for parents to apply for fall entry into a magnet is 5 p.m. today. Parents will learn in May whether their children were accepted.

Some magnets encompass entire schools; others are small centers on large campuses. Busing is provided by the district. Their test scores typically surpass those of neighborhood schools, though they vary as much in quality as they do in philosophy.

But as a tool for integration today, most magnets fail. Eighty-seven of the district's 162 magnets are virtually all black or Latino, and almost all of those considered integrated -- those with 30% white students -- are in or near the San Fernando Valley or the Westside.

As the new head of the district's magnet program, Sharon Curry knows that magnets were intended to integrate schools.

But as the former principal of a Mid-City magnet that she says tried and failed to attract middle-class whites, she also knows how difficult it can be to integrate a campus.

Five years ago, Curry helped remake Crescent Heights Elementary into a language arts magnet with a social justice bent. With a new curriculum and a hand-picked staff, Crescent Heights improved its test scores, became a California Distinguished School and last year generated six applications for every open slot.

Yet the school's demographics haven't budged. Despite the fact that it draws from a neighborhood where most of the residents are white, Crescent Heights has only three white children among its 350 students. Almost all the rest are black or Latino.

"We had a big campaign to get excellent teachers, our scores went up, people began taking a look at the school," Curry recalled. "But white parents would come and see all these African American children and say, 'I don't want my child to be the only white child in the school.' "

Her struggle illustrates both the promise and the problems of the magnet school system. Once a nationwide example of successful integration, the quota-driven magnet program may be on its way to becoming an anachronism.

Begun with four schools in 1976, the magnet network was part of a court-ordered desegregation plan that relied heavily on mandatory busing, which was bitterly opposed by many parents. When the busing program ended three years later, the magnet network rapidly expanded -- fed by a stream of state and federal desegregation funds.

Some parents and educators have begun to question whether racial balance on a small group of high-achieving campuses is a reasonable priority in a district where more than three-quarters of the campuses remain segregated, 76% of students are too poor to pay for school lunches and half of students at some schools drop out before graduation.

"We have a good program here with the magnets," says Supt. Roy Romer. "But I don't want them to become an elite school system that's only available to a few."

Romer has opposed expanding the magnet system, contending that its academic success can be replicated by dividing neighborhood schools into small, theme-based programs.

"We can build programs that have the same characteristics: choice by parents, high-quality instructional expectations and tools. Over time, if we have really good choices, parents will say, 'I'd rather have my youngster in this small learning community that's close to home' rather than busing kids all over town.

"I still feel the need for integration, but the whole district has changed its composition of students. We have to address that reality."

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