If you have school-age children and live in the LA Unified area, you should have received the District's 19-page Choices brochure. If you did not receive the brochure and have a child who is starting kindergarten next Fall, you need to pick one up (either at your nearest Los Angeles Public Library or LAUSD school). Here's why:
The brochure includes the application for LAUSD's highly regarded magnet program, and you need to fill it out and apply - even if you are happy with your child's current school. Trust me; I'm a 10-year LAUSD veteran. Your child will start fifth grade in what seems like the blink of an eye, and that means you'll be facing the terror that's known as Middle School. You may want some additional options, and the magnet program is a great Plan B.
And if you are the parent of a 2011 kindergarten student, now is the time to begin putting that plan in action, so you can begin playing LAUSD's infamous magnet point game and possibly enroll in the magnet of your choice as soon as your child is eligible. (More on that below!)
I offer the same advice for private school families. One of the lessons of the current recession has been that any one of us could lose our jobs unexpectedly. If at some point tuition becomes unaffordable, it could be a lifesaver to have some magnet points in your back pocket.
This year's application deadline is December 17, at 5:00 p.m.
The Attraction of Magnets
If you listen to other area parents, you might think that the magnets are a kind of parallel school system, more akin to the city's tony private academies than the problem-riddled LAUSD. Specialized programs like the ones at Balboa Gifted Magnet and 32nd Street/USC Performing Arts Magnet attract hundreds of applicants for just a few spots each year.
But these are all public schools. Some take up an entire campus, but most are smaller academies within a larger population. All students who live within the boundaries of LAUSD are eligible to attend, and there are no application fees or tuition.
Many parents don't realize that the LAUSD Magnet program was launched in the late 70's as an alternative to the busing that was meant to be the solution to court-ordered desegregation. The magnet idea is to offer an educational choice that would attract students from all over the District – and perhaps those who had fled the public school system. They are still the basis of a voluntary integration program, and receive additional Federal funds.
Choosing a Magnet
When you think of the perfect school for your child, what kind of programs come to mind? Is your child a budding naturalist? You may be interested in the Environmental Science program at Multnomah Elementary. Do you have a future diplomat in the family? He or she may thrive at Westside's Global Awareness Magnet. Do you chafe at school bureaucracy and long for a freer, more experiential education? Check out the program at Valley Alternative.
There are 169 different Magnet schools with programs that fall into 13 different categories, including Communications, Fine and Performing Arts, Foreign Language, Gifted/High Ability, Humanities, Law/Government/Police Academies, and Math/Science Technology. A full list of the categories can be found here.
Unfortunately, you are only allowed to apply to one magnet per student per year, so you need to make that selection wisely. After you've read the descriptions on LAUSD's website for specific magnet programs and this site for information on the schools themselves, check out what parents have had to say at Great Schools, which is a kind of Yelp for education.
Online research is good, but it doesn't replace actually visiting the school and talking to teachers, administrators and other parents. Many LAUSD magnet schools offer tours during the application process. You can download a schedule that shows where and when they are right here
What's Your Lineage?
Magnet coordinators don't look at an applicant's grades or test scores – but they DO pay attention to a student's ethnicity. Remember, it's a voluntary integration program. The schools' first priority is to maintain a diverse student population and so each school has a target number for each of six federally identified ethnicities. This number will change from year to year and is closely guarded.
While the application allows you to describe your child as Multi-racial/Multi-ethnic , you are still instructed to select ONE federally identified ethnicity (and if you leave it blank or pick more than one, your application will be discarded).
Any student who lives within the boundaries of LAUSD can apply to any school. Applicants' grades and test scores have no bearing on acceptance. The exception is at schools with gifted/high ability, highly gifted and talented programs. Also, students who apply for high school math and science programs should have completed or expect to take Algebra 1AB.
The Infamous Point System
Theoretically, as long as the magnet you apply to has an opening, your child will automatically be accepted. However, the demand for magnet spots is higher than its supply, and that's where the District's infamous point system comes in.
Applicants automatically receive four points if their home school is deemed PHBAO (Predominantly Hispanic, Black, Asian and Other Non-Anglo). As LAUSD is 87% minority, your chances are good at obtaining your first four points this way.
You are also awarded four points if your school has been designated as Overcrowded. Fewer schools carry this designation since the opening of several new schools.
If your child has a sibling already attending the school you're applying to, you get three points. So it is conceivable to get 4-11 points right off the bat; these may be enough to get in on your first application.
If you apply and don't get into the magnet you choose, you will be placed on a wait list and if September rolls around and you still haven't been accepted, you receive four points, which you can accumulate for another two years (to a maximum of 12 points).
A student who matriculates from a magnet school (i.e., K-5) is awarded 12 matriculation points for application to a secondary school.
If you have a child who will be in one of the primary grades (K-3) next year, this is a pretty straightforward process. You apply to the school of your choice, and if you don't get in, you take your wait list points and apply again the following year.
It gets tricky when your child gets older. You probably won't want to switch schools in fourth grade (and there won't be many fourth grade openings in K-5 schools). When the Choices brochure arrives in your mailbox, you may be tempted to throw it out.
Fill out the application; even if you know you haven't a prayer of getting in and don't want to, anyway. You need to maintain your point total of 12 so you can use them in two more years, when you'll need them for middle school.
Applying to a magnet when you actually don't want to switch is a bit of a gamble, because if you are accepted and end up declining their offer, you lose all the points you have accrued (and then have to start all over again the following year). Hedge your bets by applying to a school with an overwhelming ratio of applicants to openings (approximate numbers are listed right on the brochure). You'll maintain your point level with very little risk.
Some Interesting Magnets to Check Out
As a resident of the San Fernando Valley, I'm well aware of the stellar reputation of Balboa Elementary School Gifted/High Ability Magnet. After all, that's the school my daughter applied to year after year, only to be wait listed each and every time. (They estimate there will be 181 openings in the fall – and last year, received 1,622 applications).
Balboa has a long track record of excellence, having established their program back in 1978. But the Choices brochure lists another 16 elementary school magnets located throughout the city, many of which modeled their programs after Balboa's. And most of them offer better odds of acceptance. Sunland Elementary's program launched just a few years ago, so applications are a lot lighter (101 last year, and an estimated 78 spots open).
Over 2,400 students applied to 32nd Street/USC last year, a school with a total capacity of just 794 K-8 students. Estimated 2011 open spots: 56.
Take a look at Hillcrest Elementary, which only had to consider 74 applications this year. Estimated open spots in 2011: 45.
At LeConte Middle School, the emphasis is on International Humanities, with "an interdisciplinary approach to increase student awareness of and appreciation for the exciting cultural world we live in." 130 applied last year; 97 projected openings in 2011.
There are more math/science/technology schools within LAUSD than any other kind of magnet – but there are some interesting variations within the theme. Wright Middle School focuses on Math, Science and Aerospace. (236 applications in 2010; 175 estimated 2011 openings)
Arroyo Seco's "One of a Kind" program teaches students about Museum Science by pairing them with curators and docents at the area's museums. The uniqueness of this program explains why they received 608 applications last year. They estimate 84 open spots in 2011.
LAUSD is running a pilot music program for students with "exceptional ability in instrumental music" at Hamilton High and Washington Preparatory Academy. These are the few magnets that require applicants to audition.
Daniel Pearl High School (named for the late reporter) is a Journalism and Communications program. Estimated openings here are roughly equal to the number of applications they received last year.
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