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7 Campuses in Sylmar to Offer School Choice

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of Sylmar elementary schools agreed Wednesday to give parents a choice of campuses next school year in an effort to grant them more authority over the education of their children.

The decision came just a few days after Gov. Pete Wilson announced that a controversial school choice initiative will go before voters at a special election Nov. 2. The voucher measure would allow parents to choose between sending their children to public schools or using state funds to send them to private or parochial institutions.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 28, 1993 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 28, 1993 Valley Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
School choice-A story Thursday misstated the number of public school parents in a survey who said they would send their children to a different school if given the choice. According to the nationwide survey by the carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 70% of public school parents would not want to choose a new school for their children.

Acting on an idea first broached in December, officials and parents from seven Sylmar elementary campuses decided to begin phasing in what will be the Los Angeles Unified School District’s first program of open enrollment within a single community. It would also apparently be one of California’s few neighborhood-based choice programs, according to a state Department of Education spokeswoman.

“We’re here . . . really as pioneers,” Assistant Supt. Sara A. Coughlin told about 40 parents and school officials who gathered Wednesday morning at Harding Street School. Added Coughlin, who oversees elementary schools in the San Fernando Valley, “We’re here to look at a new possibility for using schools in a better way and for giving parents an opportunity they haven’t had before to choose schools.”

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Officials at the seven schools will submit by next week the number of slots they are willing to open to parents who opt to send their children to a campus other than the one assigned to them by the district. The figures will be published in a newsletter sent to parents, outlining the choice program and describing what each school has to offer.

In another facet of the plan, students whose families move to another part of Sylmar can continue to attend their current school. Such youngsters now have to transfer to the campus in their new neighborhood.

The concept of public school choice has been embraced by President Clinton and is incorporated in the Los Angeles district’s recently adopted LEARN plan. However, the 37 campuses selected to be the first LEARN schools are scattered throughout the district. LEARN President Mike Roos said school choice will not begin until entire high school “complexes"--composed of high schools and their feeder campuses--join the reform effort.

Advocates of the sweeping California school choice measure welcomed the Sylmar pilot project. But Kevin D. Teasley of the Choice-in-Education League, the initiative’s sponsor, said the effort was not enough.

“Anything that gives parents the ability to control their child’s education is great. But it’s a baby step,” he said of the Sylmar program.

“It’s crazy that (the district) is just getting around” to permitting parents to choose the schools their youngsters attend, Teasley said. Choice should be “a given from Day 1.”

Los Angeles district officials contend that the nation’s second-largest school system already offers a “generous element” of choice. They cite the district’s highly regarded magnet schools and a permit system that allows parents to send their children to campuses outside their neighborhoods--two programs that form the core of the district’s voluntary desegregation effort.

Several cities and states across the country have already developed some form of public school choice, which emerged last year as one of the hottest topics in education reform. However, according to a study released in October by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, fewer than 2% of parents in the 13 states in which school choice programs are available have taken advantage of the policy.

The study also found that 70% of parents with youngsters attending public schools across the nation said they would choose a different school.

In California, the 20,000-student Irvine Unified School District has offered open enrollment for the past two decades. But only 5% to 10% of students on each of the district’s two dozen campuses are from outside the school neighborhood, Supt. David E. Brown said.

Los Angeles district officials, in a report released last December, identified the Sylmar High School complex as one of four that could begin exploring the idea of choice. Three other sets of elementary campuses--attached to Eagle Rock, Gardena and Washington high schools--have not yet discussed the choice idea, officials said. The four complexes were selected because the schools have space for students to move from one to the other and few students are bused in, so current transportation patterns would not be disrupted.

The Sylmar project differs from the district’s desegregation programs involving choice because parents will not need permits. However, the district will not provide transportation for children who switch campuses.

The seven Sylmar elementary schools--Dyer Street, El Dorado, Gridley Street, Harding Street, Herrick Avenue, Hubbard Street and Sylmar--would still have to adhere to district integration regulations. That provision worries some Anglo parents who fear they would be forbidden to remove their children from schools that need Anglo children to maintain ethnic balance.

Other parents expressed concern that minority parents would be shut out, with choice limited to mostly Anglo middle-class residents able to drive their youngsters to schools outside of walking distance.

But most of the parents at Wednesday’s meeting appeared to support the idea of choice, partly for the competition it would generate among campuses to attract and retain students.

“That would fire schools up and encourage them to be good,” said Kim Wahl, PTA president at Harding Street. “Right now no one’s accountable. I don’t see how the whole district could not benefit from this.”


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