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Still seeking that elusive 'right' school

Parents scramble to claim seats for their children in magnet, charter and private programs.

July 29, 2007|Howard Blume and Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writers

When it comes to looking out for her children and grandchildren, Patricia Britt, a no-nonsense hospital nursing director, is nobody's fool. Yet here she is, in late July, beside herself because she hasn't yet settled on a school for her 8-year-old grandson Corey to attend in the fall.

Britt and her son, who are raising Corey together, gradually became dissatisfied with the private school that's putting a $400-a-month strain on the family budget. But they have concerns about the quality of the public schools close to their Hyde Park home. And schools that they do like, such as the View Park Preparatory charter school run by Inner City Education, have a discouragingly long waiting list.

"My son has been looking," Britt said. "He's getting kind of frustrated. It's almost to the 99th hour of making the decision."

No one knows exactly how many students are still without a school, but indicators show that the annual last-ditch scramble for a seat at a school of choice is in high gear:

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Schools: An article in Sunday's California section about parents seeking new schools for their children referred to Gino Natalicchio's search for a school for "her 11th-grade daughter." Natalicchio is male.

* Some 28,217 students remain on waiting lists to get into Los Angeles Unified School District's prized magnet schools, which are special programs established to promote integration.

* Popular charter schools -- free, public schools run independently of the school district -- are mostly oversubscribed: The Inner City Education Foundation, which operates the View Park charter schools, pegs its waiting list at more than 5,000.

* The season for admission into popular private schools is long past, but parents are hoping to find an opening, perhaps at a school looking for a particular demographic to round out its student body.

So how does a parent get into this predicament? Some simply waited too long. Others have diligently researched and visited schools, applied on time but lost admission lotteries or discovered they lack sufficient "priority points" to gain admittance into magnet schools. Some have refused to give up on a private school slot.

By law, every child is ensured a spot in a public school. But for this mass of families, the neighborhood school typically is not the preferred choice.

The Los Angeles school district's magnet office tries to help. So does its open enrollment office. A call to a school -- public or private -- can uncover unexpected openings; informal parent networks also accumulate information. Parents often find that the local public school is better than first presumed, or has a special and worthy program within the larger campus that they can settle on.

Then there are parents who lie to get into a school, which can backfire if a school investigates.

"It was really difficult when my daughter didn't get a sibling permit" for an in-demand Westside school, said Kerry Allen. "Because I know families who used false addresses."

Other parents have worn out shoe leather, spent evenings poring over test scores and attended lotteries.

Debra, who lives in North Hollywood, visited seven public schools in recent months. Like other parents in limbo, Debra asked that her last name not be used, for fear that publicity could hurt her son's chances of getting into a school.

She had started at her neighborhood campus, where, she said she was told there was no advanced curriculum for her entering kindergartner, who can read.

So she turned elsewhere. Her son sits more than 100 deep on the waiting list at Sherman Oaks Elementary. At the Community Magnet, just west of the Bel-Air Country Club, he is so far down that "they said there's not really a chance."

She also filed a permit application at the newly refurbished Hesby Oaks in Encino. "They're so full they have a waiting list even for siblings."

The staff at Lanai Road Elementary in Encino said her son could probably enter its School for Advanced Studies, an accelerated program, but they wouldn't know for sure until after school starts.

Debra's other favored options, at this point, are two private schools; each would cost about $20,000 a year. She's not sure she can afford that on her husband's salary as a stuntman. She once ran a modeling agency but currently works part-time.

There's also a desperate back-up plan: Rent out the family's North Hollywood house and move to a Malibu trailer park to qualify for schools there. But the seller wants $400,000 for the trailer, and hookups are at least $2,000 more a month, she said.

Issues of race, the right academic program and safety, among other things, all play into the complex and personal decision behind school choice. Several Anglo parents expressed discomfort about neighborhood schools that are almost entirely Latino -- L.A. Unified is 72.8% Latino. These same parents insisted they want diversity; to them, however, that means a core of children who look like their own.

But the summer search transcends Anglo angst. Minority parents also are looking for options.

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