Rolling the Dice With Los Angeles Magnet Schools

The deadline is looming!

Friday, January 11, 2008 at 5:00 P.M. is a moment of agony for thousands of LA parents.

It's the deadline for the infamous "Choices" brochure. If you're an LA parent with a child in public school, you are probably very familiar with this brochure and all the anxiety it causes.

However, for those of you who either live in other parts of the world or amble along in childless bliss, here's a nice, positive summing up of the pyschotic magnet world, courtesy of this LA Times article:

"The magnet system established specialty schools that have become, in many cases, the district's brightest centers of academic excellence. It was intended to give families the motivation to voluntarily desegregate a district that was deeply polarized along racial lines. It hasn't fully met that promise -- many schools in the district remain racially isolated. But numerous magnet schools have become models of integration."

Basically, if your child gets into a magnet, they have a better chance of getting a great education. And guess what? Race is the main criteria for admission in these schools and they try to create a 40% white / 60% non-white or a 30% white / 70% non-white balance.

This race-based admissions policy got challenged in court but, surprisingly since this is California, the land of Proposition 209, the challengers lost.

As a side note, I love how in the Choices brochure "white" is defined as, "A non-Hispanic person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East, e.g., England, Egypt, Russia or Iran."

So if you're from Iraq or Iran, congratulations, you're white! I could write a whole separate post on LAUSD's racial classifications but I'll save it for another day. I'm just wondering though, has anyone told George Bush that according to LAUSD, 2/3 of the Axis of Evil is white?

Anyway, I've always been an advocate of supporting my neighborhood school and I'm happy with my both my son's teachers. However, I would like more racial diversity, more science, social studies and art and a principal focused on making the school one of the best in the state. So I figured, why not give the magnet thing a whirl and see what happens?

You can only apply to one magnet per year so I submitted applications for both of my sons to a fab K-5 school with lots of diversity and through the roof test scores. However, last year there were 35 openings and 1,652 applications for this school.

Yeah, you read those numbers right.

So that means they have a 2.1% chance of getting in. Boy, with those kinds of odds, maybe I should go buy a lottery ticket too.

And the Vegas-style admissions odds aren't limited to just the school I applied to. Nope, take a look at the numbers for Valley Alternative where 2.2% of applicants are going to get in. Read their "Success Secret".

Now to me, it seems like there are a whole lot of parents out there who'd love to have their high school-aged child educated so well that when they go to high school, they're far enough ahead that they're taking college level classes. But if your kid doesn't get into Valley Magnet, you can kinda forget about that.

You might also have to forget about getting an education good enough to be able to comprehend a high school textbook. In the magnet brochure, they list out what are called "Program Improvement" schools. Program Improvement (PI) schools are schools that are scraping the bottom of the academic barrel. They have the absolute lowest test scores. And in this city, there are 163 elementaries (uh huh) that are PI schools.

Even if a school isn't a PI school, that doesn't mean it's excellent. Nope, a whole lot of them are just barely avoiding being PI schools. There are way too many schools in this city that are just so-so. They aren't cringe-worthy, but they're not awesome either.

Chances are my kids are gonna get rejected from the magnet we applied to. I'm looking into some other options but I'm fully prepared to have to keep supplementing their education here at home.

But doesn't it somehow seem illegal, immoral even, to give a better education to kids who, through the luck of the draw, get into one of these magnets?

I say yes.

Now since LAUSD is turning me into a gambler, let me go buy my Mega Millions lottery ticket.


none said…
Wouldn't it make more sense to just fix the schools and hold the teachers and administrators responsible for providing safety and a decent education?
Jen said…
My son is in a magnet school that sounds a lot like Valley Alternative. And he got in through lottery. Their numbers were better, though - there were 111 openings and about 350 applied. We were still lucky, though, and we know it. Now my problem is this - if these programs are so successful/popular, why aren't there more of them? Why can't we restructure our regular schools to take what's been going on from these schools?
Also, as immoral as the lottery might seem, look at this - up until about 8 years ago, the process for getting into that school was "first come, first served", and you had to CAMP OUT in the dead of winter (this is Michigan winter, mind you) to hold your place in line. The year before they eliminated this travesty, folks started camping out 3.5 weeks IN ADVANCE. So, forget it if you were a single parent, or someone who couldn't miss work, etc. And guess what that meant for diversity of all types?
Now that was a travesty.
Anonymous said…
I may have mentioned this before but my husband went to a magnet school in Florida, I don't think it was nearly that hard to get in. Some of his closest friends are former students and teachers from that school.

Your kids are so lucky in that they have you to supplement their schooling as needed!
Anonymous said…
Sometimes I feel distinctly relieved I never had children. I think the whole business of getting them into decent schools would have been a nightmare. Here in the UK one of the main reasons for moving house is to get into the catchment area of a good school. Sheer madness. My parents paid through the nose to get me into a private boarding school, which as it happens turned out to be dreadful.
Jameil said…
and Egypt is white, too??? ok. in charlotte the magnet program is much more open and organized along interest lines i.e. spanish/german/french immersion, arts, medical/law etc etc. and they're mostly within other schools not their own separate schools. public schools in general are failing those who need it most-- the poverty-striken ones whose parents aren't educated enough to supplement their school's shortcomings. i hope your boys get in!!
I'm just going to leave the who is white/not white thing alone. I mean good goodness....

I taught for a summer at the LB Weemes Elementary School in Los Angeles (in the early 1990's). I don't think the whole magnet school/lottery issue had kicked in.

I have to say though - I taught in New Orleans after that summer and the Los Angeles's schools were the model of excellence compared to NOLA.
Liz Dwyer said…
You'd think, right? But that's not what happens. Teachers complain about what kids aren't getting at home but a whole lot could be accomplished if there was a real focus in schools on achievement for all kids, not just some.

Lots of excuses are given about why more schools can't look like magnets, and the issue usually comes back to money.

That camping out mess sounds horrible and you make a good point about it. I guess the lottery thing here is that it's not as up to chance as it seems. Parents in wealthier areas get coached on how to work the magnet system. Most weathier, more caucasian schools have alright elementaries but middle and high schools are mostly hell across the board unless you're in a magnet, so in some communities, seminars are held on how to beat the magnet system. Basically, every time you get rejected, you get "points". The more points you accumulate, the better your chances are of getting into the school you want. So a parent will apply to Valley, even if their child's elementary is alright, because they want to get the magnet points and clearly, chances are, rejection is gonna happen. So you rack up the points for admission to the school you really want. Anyway, all that IS better than camping out in the cold, but it's still a crappy system.

That's cool that your husband went to a great magnet. I definitely wish our application process was easier.

I do have fun doing school stuff at home with them. It's great to see them learning so much.

I always wanted to go to a boarding school but my parents didn't have the resources and it probably would've been dreadful for me as well.

As much as I love my neighborhood, I have thought about how if I moved even a mile further north, the schools get a whole lot better. It's just more expensive and I have rent control here, so choices will surely have to be made.

Yup, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia...all just filled with white folks. Who knew!

We also have some magnets that are within schools. A few of the high schools are like that and that's when you really see the contrast of what kids get access to. Our magnets do line up along interest areas as well, but I wanted to just put them in a general one yet because I don't want them to specialize too early, although my eldest is crazy about science and acting and the youngest loves visual arts and music. I hope they get in too.

Soccer Mom in Denial,
One of my friends taught in NOLA and left two months before Katrina. He definitely had some stories, that's for sure. I can' recall when the whole magnet thing started, I think in the late '70s, but it seems like the competition has increased because more and more schools are performing poorly.

I know one thing, I've been quite disappointed with the way education hasn't been addressed in the Presidential campaigns. It's disturbing, to say the least.

And yes, who's white, who's not...race is a complete social construct and who's to decide who is one racial group or another...but given the definitions our world's generally working with, LAUSD's is really curious.
I was on this thing called the SITE council when I was in high school. While our school principle was stealing from the fund (my bf and I squealed on him and he was fired) and some teachers were going on expensive conferences, schools in LAUSD were using the money to buy used textbooks. We went to visit a school to "review" their purchases and it was unbelievable. They were replacing books from the 1950s.

While that was 20 years ago, I can't imagine it's really all that different.

Good for you for sticking with public schools and trying to do what's right for your kids. Whether they get in or not, you will ensure their education is excellent.

Now how cool is that?
I believe in public education because of the diversity, but the situation you describe is brutally unfair and damaging to so many children who don't get into the Magnet schools. And now that the governor is making huge cuts, the schools will be the first to go. This makes no sense at all, but consider the source.

Ultimately, the greater part of a child's education falls on the parents no matter how good the schools are. Luckily for your boys, theirs are well-equipped to give them every such advantage.

I always check "Other" on forms which demand to know my race because it's not the marker by which I identify myself. Since there is usually a smorgasbord of possible choices, I imagine them reviewing it later and wondering if I'm from Mars or Saturn.
Mobile said…
NC also has a magnet program, and I've yet to understand... why? What happened to putting your kids in a private school if you wanted the super-amazing test scores and academics. It seems that the magnet program would draw resources away from the "run of the mill" schools, but I don't know enough about the topic to comment with any idea of what I'm talking about.
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh yes, that same sort of corruption goes on. The amount of money they spend on retreats for principals, lunch for trainings and for "professional development" that doesn't get executed well on a school level is ridiculous. That same kind of excess can be found in the corporate world as far as executive perks, but if it's a for-profit enterprise, it's a bit different. The district got sued (Williams Legislation) and so they now have to have a book for every child in the "core" areas, which at an elementary level are math and reading. It's crazy that you have to be sued to have that.

Oh yes, the schools will be first to go, even though the lottery is supposed to directly benefit education. I am glad I already know that there's no point in solely counting on any school to educate your kids, but still though, sometimes the level of supplementation is ridiculous.

On the magnet forms, if you apply, you MUST pick either american indian, white, black/African-American/not of hispanic origin, hispanic, filipino, pacific islander or asian. If you don't, you can't apply. You can check a multiracial box if you want to but it's more of a courtesy since they make it clear on the form that you still must check one of the other ones and that's the designation they'll use for you. And if you switch your designation from year to year, you lose all your magnet points.
Whoa! I am shocked at what
JENOFA2EATWRITE wrote! Camping out in front of a building??? 3.5 weeks in advance??? I am shocked. Oh my God. It sounds insane.

On the other hand, it's kind of amazing that folks love their kids enough to do that.

Either that, or they just want to make sure there's no one living in the basement at 25 years old writing their name on the orange juice!
Liz Dwyer said…
The camping out thing does sound insane, but I'd probably do it too if it was necessary. And being 25 in the basement...yeah, I'll do anything to make sure that's not happening, unless I have a brownstone and it's a separate apartment!
Mamita Umita said…
I totally feel you on this topic. I was fortunate enough to get Imani into a magnet school here in Chicago, and one of the best ones. I remember going to the school for the open house day and seeing literally 1,000 parents there. I felt like I was going to go for blood in order to get her into that school. All of the parents looked insane in their quest. I hate the fact that some people may think that I used the "race card" in getting Imani into the school, as I checked the box for "african american" instead of the other 3 ethnicities that she is, but like I have mentioned to you before since Imani does not look "black" I still want people to know and acknowledge that she is, and this is something she should be proud of. There is no "other" taken, as others have mentioned which I feel is quite unfair being an "other" person myself. I am pleased that she is there now and is getting the good education she deserves, but how unfortunate for those who didn't get in.
Liz Dwyer said…
Oh my goodness, 1000 parents at an open house day is just CRAZY! I think the fact that you encourage Imani's connection to her black heritage is so great. It's what makes you who you are because not a whole lot of folks would do that. In our society, blackness is something to get away from and you're bucking that trend. Gosh, I love you!

And Olinga's in love with her. Every time he sees one of her pictures, he gets all googly-eyed and shy-acting.

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