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Bob Sipchen / SCHOOL ME

Tips for getting your kids picked up by a magnet

January 15, 2007|Bob Sipchen

Negligent Los Angeles parents take note: You have only until Friday to get a postmark on the magnet school application that your more responsible peers regard -- rightly or wrongly -- as their last desperate hope for getting their children a good education at taxpayer expense.

Don't panic, though.

Sure, last school year 65,000 applicants battled for about 16,000 spots at 162 Los Angeles Unified School District magnet campuses with concentrations on such diverse subjects as natural science, administrative law and Latin music.

And yes, really good parents have been working on strategies for accumulating magnet "points" since well before their children were born.

For those of you who aren't that devoted, here's a quick primer on how to game the system.

Your first faltering steps will depend on a pivotal choice.

It goes without saying that you're terrified of the local middle school, which you just assume has lousy test scores because of those tough-looking kids you see hanging out in front, presumably spreading graffiti, smack and STDs.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Magnet school students: The School Me column in Monday's California section said that magnet school students received four "matriculation" points for each consecutive year they attended a magnet school, for a total of 12 points. They receive 12 points regardless of the number of years attended.

But are you among the lucky few living in a middle-class niche neighborhood with a boutique elementary school that you want your child to attend?

Or did a tour of your local elementary school also make you worry that you could be tossing Precious into perdition?

In my view, parents make the magnet decision today based far more on complex issues of social class than race per se.

But race was the issue when district mucky-mucks cooked up the system in 1977 to comply with the California Supreme Court's order to voluntarily integrate.

Thirty years later the United States Supreme Court is pondering whether magnets in other states are violating the Constitution by making enrollment decisions based on skin color. L.A. Unified's magnet program could be at risk.

In the meantime, race remains the pivotal magnet criterion.

We'll have to return to that. Race has nothing to do with getting those magnet points that determine your child's position on the list that the district's computer generates to determine who gets into each school.

They can be acquired in five ways only:

1) A child can claim four "matriculation" points for every consecutive year he's in a magnet school, up to a total of 12 points.

2) If a child applies to a magnet and is rejected, he gets four points per rejection, again for a maximum of 12 "wait list" points.

3) If the district has slapped a PHBAO label (that's "predominantly Hispanic, black, Asian and other non-Anglo") on the child's non-magnet neighborhood school, he gets another four points.

4) If that "resident" school is overcrowded, he gets another four points.

5) And if he has siblings who attend the magnet to which he's applying, he gets another three points.

The most points a child can accumulate is 23.

The relative simplicity of this unravels, however, because of the fine print on Page 4 in the district's pretty, new, full-color Choices brochure: "Each magnet's openings are determined by the need to maintain a racially balanced enrollment and by available space."

As far as the magnet program is concerned, the only categories are "minority" -- Asians, Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, African Americans and Hispanics are lumped together in this category -- and "white."

Schools are supposed to strive for a balance of either 60% minority and 40% white or 70%-30% in very heavily "minority" neighborhoods. So the district weighs white children's points only against other white children's; a minority child's against other minorities.

Because whites made up just 8.8% of the district last year, pitting the 22.2% of them who applied to magnets against the category "minorities" has a somewhat psychedelic feel.

So does the reality of white students being the beneficiaries of what usually becomes upside-down affirmative action.

To understand how to work the race angle, imagine a mom whose ancestors trace back to Scotland married to a dad whose predecessors hail from Mexico. Their little girl could flip to "minority" or flop to "white."

Say the mom had her heart set on little Juanita-Jane snagging one of the estimated 106 seats at 32nd Street School, a K-8 performing-arts magnet with links to USC.

The district says 3,860 students applied to 32nd Street School last year. A glance at the district's website shows that the 733-member student body is 8.7% white. So the mom would be better off embracing her child's whiteness on the app.

At certain Valley and Westside magnets, however, the "minority" designation would be a huge advantage.

And if the mom wanted to get Juanita-Jane into the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES) magnet near La Cienega and the 10 Freeway, it would probably be a wash, because this college prep-oriented school's student body is 29.5% white.

In any case, Juanita-Jane wouldn't have a prayer of moving from 32nd Street to LACES regardless of racial preference.

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