District's 'Best-Kept Secret' : Fine-Arts Magnet Short of Students

Times Staff Writer

The fine-arts magnet program at Edison Elementary School, described by some parents as one of the "best-kept secrets" in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, is not attracting the numbers of white students school officials had hoped it would when they created the program to help balance the school's racial population.

The arts magnet was established three years ago as part of the district's voluntary integration program to increase the number of white students at Edison by offering special classes. Edison, with 458 students, is 81% minority and is the most racially segregated school in the district, according to school officials.

The magnet program, limited to students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, can accommodate 75 children but has never had that many because the school has been unable to attract enough white students. Sixty-six youngsters are enrolled now. Guidelines require that the racial balance be roughly 65% white and 35% minority.

Two weeks ago, the school board considered closing Edison because of the failure to integrate and because of declining enrollment. But after hearing appeals from several parents, the board agreed keep the school open.

It also decided to set up a task force to work on recruiting ideas and study ways of improving academic performance. Test scores of students not taking part in the magnet program are below the district average.

"The scores are low because we have a significant number of limited-English-speaking youngsters in our school," Principal Joel Post said. He said that nearly one-quarter of the district's 1,000 students who speak limited English attend Edison. Seven of the school's 16 classes are bilingual.

Recruiting efforts have focused on predominantly white, affluent elementary schools north of Wilshire Boulevard and in Malibu--Franklin, Roosevelt and Cabrillo.

School officials say they have met with little success, partly because Edison is in a low-income, predominantly Latino community just south of the Santa Monica Freeway near Cloverfield Boulevard.

"It's a classic case of a school being on the wrong side of the tracks," said board member Peggy Lyons.

"In the South," she said, "school officials solved the problem by tearing down the school on the wrong side of the tracks and making everybody go to the school on the right side of the tracks. I don't know what we are going to do here."

According to the enrollment figures, the magnet population is about 68% white and 32% minority. Seven of the program's 66 students came from school attendance areas north of Wilshire; three came from Malibu; 26 white students were drawn from other schools with substantial minority enrollment, and four white and 25 minority students attend the program from Edison. One student came from outside the district.

School officials said that some parents have objected to sending their children to the school because of the presence of large numbers of non-English-speaking students. The parents also cite concerns over safety and say that they already provide their children excellent music and arts programs at home.

Both Post and Lyons add that another factor may be prejudice.

"We try to convince them that some of the beliefs they have about the school are just not true," Post said. "But if a parent is really interested in our school, all we have to do is get them to take a tour and usually they are hooked."

The fine arts magnet has smaller classes, with a maximum of 25 students a class. A before- and after-school day-care program is also available.

Edison's fine-arts students attend separate classes, but they share lunch, recess and physical education time with students in Edison's regular program. The magnet students take a condensed academic schedule to make room for courses in creative writing, music, drama and dance. This year the students will perform an adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland."

"The program," said Nancy Kaye, a fourth-grade magnet teacher, "gives me a chance to work with the whole child, not just in an academic sense."

Nancy Paul, another magnet teacher, said that the board should do more to promote the program.

"I think we should have an aggressive advertising campaign," she said. "I have had parents tell me, 'You are the best-kept secret in Santa Monica.' " Paul suggested that the fine-arts students put on a "traveling road show" to promote the program.

Kathleen Rhodes, the mother of two children at the school, one in the magnet program, said, "I feel we have all the benefits of a private school without paying for it. The program gives the children the opportunity to build self-confidence."

Rhodes lives in the Franklin attendance area. "As far as promoting integration, the program may not be working as well as it could, but as far as promoting excellence in education it works," she said.

Donna Lee, the mother of a sixth-grader, described the school as a "very sound educational investment."

"It has provided a stage for all the children to grow not just academically, but socially and musically," she said.

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