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L.A. Unified school choices are a confusing maze

Fairs and websites try to help parents, but deciphering magnets, points and charters within the district isn't easy.

November 27, 2009|By Howard Blume

Pamela Krys, who moved to Woodland Hills a year ago, made a confession during a school fair this month at Sutter Middle School in Canoga Park.

"I don't understand the points," she said, referring to one aspect of the application process for magnet programs. "They don't do points in Florida."

Understanding the points system is just one of the complications surrounding school choice in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Although its "choices" website is improving, the school system provides no central location -- online or off -- to help parents manage all their options if they don't want their children to attend their neighborhood school.

Separate programs have different application forms, processes and deadlines. Nor does the district supply some key information, such as student test scores for most magnets. Budget cuts led to the cancellation of districtwide magnet fairs, although some regional administrators have staged smaller events.

The district's "choices" application brochure offers bare-bones magnet descriptions. It does, for example, classify a magnet as a police academy or a math-science-technology program but doesn't go into detail. It also includes how many students applied last year, along with the number of openings this year.

At the Venice High foreign language magnet, for example, 230 students applied last year and there are 145 openings this year.

Such figures offer imperfect insight in part because the openings and applications counts are not broken down by grade. There's also the factor of a student's race, because the magnet program, which began in the 1970s, remains an effort to promote voluntary integration.

The Venice magnet, like most, has a target enrollment of 30% white and 70% nonwhite. Based on recent history, white applicants for ninth grade are virtual shoo-ins because relatively few white families sign up, said magnet coordinator Darcey Wark.

Nonwhite students are likely to need about 12 "points" to avoid the waiting list, she added.

Points are collected several ways. If a family's neighborhood school is overcrowded, for example, the student gets four points. If that school serves an enrollment that is predominantly low-income minority, the student gets another four points. Applying to a magnet and not getting in earns four rejection points, which can be saved from year to year.

Some parents apply to overcrowded magnets hoping to get edged out, so they can accumulate rejection points for the future. (These points are lost when a student gets into a magnet and declines to attend.)

Families typically select a program with little knowledge about its performance. That's because many magnets are not stand-alone campuses, so student test scores are folded into those of the host school, even though the district has the data to break them out separately.

The Venice magnet does that on its own, proud to show off its proficiency rates of about 77% in English and 66% in math, which puts it firmly in the upper rank of high school programs, Wark said.

Magnet aspirants who end up on waiting lists need to line up other options but shouldn't necessarily give up. The Venice program typically offers admission to all wait-listed applicants before summer's end, she added.

Other than magnets, the application form in the choices brochure gives families the option to be bused out of overcrowded schools or to leave schools that have persistently failed to meet federal test-score targets. More than 300 of these "failing" schools are listed in the brochure, which also can be found at www.echoices.lausd .net.

The application brochure, due Dec. 18, is mailed to parents whose children are enrolled in traditional or magnet schools. Others, including those at charters, can obtain the applications from public libraries and traditional schools.

Charters are independently managed and free from some restrictions that govern traditional schools. The best place to find them is on a locater map on the website of the California Charter Schools Assn. In the choices brochure, charters are mentioned but specific schools are not listed.

Every charter school has its own application process and its own timetable for a lottery if too many students apply.

At the Sutter fair, district magnet coordinator Sara Lasnover said the complexities of the magnet system relate to its history as an integration program. She tried to explain the points system to parents and also gave out her phone number: (213) 241-4177.

Parent Krissie Flemming is leaning toward either Hale Middle School in Woodland Hills or the nearby Woodland Hills Academy. Many such neighborhood schools have accelerated programs, called schools for advanced studies, for high-achieving students like her fifth-grader Hunter, although they can vary widely in academic rigor.

Especially with overall enrollment down, schools are eager to open up available seats to willing students; that process will occur in April or May.

Parent Lisa Polydoros wasn't sure how charter schools work -- and no charter representative was on hand to clarify the matter.

"I've been in the system all my life," she said, "and it's still confusing."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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