More than 22,000 classroom seats in the Los Angeles Unified School District go up for grabs next week when state-ordered open enrollment takes effect, unleashing a new era in which schools enter the world of marketing in a frenzy to recruit students.
Teachers at Grant High School in Van Nuys took out a $400 newspaper ad listing the school's attributes, comparing them with those of private schools and asking: "Why pay $12,000 when you can get the same plus more for FREE?"
At least 20 Los Angeles Unified schools have produced 30-second infomercials to be aired on the district's public access television channel, complete with snappy slogans touting everything from high-tech computer labs to crime-free campuses.
"We're a safe, air-conditioned, closed campus that has won five school-beautiful awards," boasts Braddock Drive Elementary School in its TV spot. Other schools, such as Lincoln High on the Eastside, have launched a multi-pronged campaign with newsletters, a TV spot and weekly visitor tours.
"This is the new age of advertising and marketing--some people think that those are dirty words, but we are going to market our little school," said Howard Lappin, principal of James A. Foshay Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles, which wants 150 more students in order to launch a major reform program. "It's time that schools realize we are living in the real world and we better start doing this."
The activity results from a state law that lets parents enroll their children in any school in the same district that has available space. In Los Angeles, the hotbeds of school shopping are the West San Fernando Valley and the Westside, where declining enrollments and the flight to private schools have left empty seats.
"We are trying to compete," said Santa Campuzano, principal of Braddock Drive Elementary in Mar Vista, whose TV pitch opens with a crowd of youngsters proudly holding the school's trophies and plaques. "I know we have children who live in this area and attend other schools. We are trying to show parents that we have a great reputation and their children can do very well at this school."
Nowhere is the state's new law, which was approved last summer, expected to have more impact than in Los Angeles. And nowhere, experts say, will the advantages and disparities of the choice movement be more clearly visible or closely watched.
The law and the school board's policy will give parents the opportunity to send their children to virtually any school that has space, but will not offer transportation, which some people see as limiting opportunities for poor families.
"Given the fact that there is physical room to move around in the district, L.A. may in fact become the laboratory for what is going to happen" in the school choice movement, said Julia Koppich, deputy director of Policy Analysis for Education, a research center at UC Berkeley. "Will parents actually select different schools? Do schools try to (recruit) certain types of students or do they try to develop programs that are available to a wide variety of kids?"
Los Angeles school officials say it is difficult to predict whether there will be wholesale shifts of students before the application process closes.
"We have no idea what this is going to be like, no idea," said Joyce Peyton, director of the district office that tracks available campus space. "It's new. We have no history."
More than half of the district's schools--382--have open enrollment space, with middle schools and high schools showing the largest blocks, some ranging into the hundreds. Elementary schools run the gamut of space availability, from just two to more than 100 seats.
Most of the schools reporting no space are in the Eastside, South-Central Los Angeles and the East San Fernando Valley, areas where the immigrant population mushroomed during the 1980s.
Many schools that are perceived to be highly desirable by parents and which annually draw many transfer requests--among them Carpenter Avenue Elementary in Studio City and Warner Elementary in Westwood--report being filled to capacity.
Schools involved in major reform efforts, such as the district's LEARN plan or the state's charter school program, also tend to have little or no space, possibly an indication that parents are eager to send their children to cutting-edge schools.
The 1980s saw a phenomenal spurt in school enrollment. During that decade, schools across the district were forced to hastily expand by installing bungalows and turning to year-round schedules. But the growth suddenly stopped two years ago for a variety of reasons, including population declines as a result of the poor local economy.
District officials left it up to principals to determine the number of open enrollment seats. Estimates were largely based on empty space on the campus and projected enrollment from the local neighborhood. Students from a school's neighborhood are guaranteed seats even at full schools.
Some principals underestimated their space. Principal Clarke Marrow at Grand View Boulevard School on the Westside said he declared six open enrollment seats, instead of the 12 spaces he might be able to absorb, to leave room for recruitment into the school's bilingual education classes.
"I want to bolster the bilingual program," he said.
At the other end of the spectrum, Michael Bennett, principal at Parkman Middle School in Woodland Hills, said he estimated liberally, at 300 open seats, to attract as many students as possible. "I just want to get the most kids I can," Bennett said. "I wanted people to know there is room here."
Early indications are that parents are spending time checking out schools and investigating possibilities close to home or work, pleased to be free of district regulations that once bound their children to attend only their neighborhood school.
Peter Lightfoot of Canoga Park said he has visited elementary schools in Woodland Hills near his wife's workplace. When out touring, Lightfoot said, his first impressions were the ones that lasted the longest.
"One school wasn't well kept, there didn't seem to be anyone to answer our questions, we were looking all over the place for the office, and no one noticed us" he said, adding that it will not be his school of choice.
Open enrollment is expected to have a profound impact on sports teams throughout the city as high school athletes shop for the best team instead of the best classrooms, said Barbara Fiege, the district's director of interscholastic athletics.
Last week, the California Interscholastic Federation changed its eligibility rules to accommodate the open enrollment law. Under the new guidelines, varsity athletes can make a one-time move to a high school outside their home districts without losing eligibility.
Under the old rules, they would have had to sit out a year if they transferred. Coaches are still prohibited from recruiting athletes.
* LIST OF SCHOOLS: B2