More than 22,000 classroom seats in the Los Angeles Unified School District, including more than 9,100 in the San Fernando Valley, 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 compared to private schools: “Why pay $12,000 when you can get the same plus more for FREE?”
At least 20 Los Angeles schools have produced 30-second commercials to be aired on the district’s public television station, 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 the Westside’s Braddock Drive School in its TV spot. Other schools, such as Lincoln High north of Downtown, 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 Foshay Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles, which wants 150 more students so it can 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 in the West Valley and the Westside, where declining enrollment and flight to private schools have left empty seats.
“We are trying to compete,” said Santa Campuzano, principal of Braddock Drive, whose TV pitch opens to 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 choice law, which was approved over the summer, expected to have more of an impact than in Los Angeles. And nowhere, experts said, will the advantages and disparities of the choice movement be more clearly visible and closely watched.
While the law and the school board’s policy give parents the opportunity to send their children to virtually any school that has space, it does not offer transportation, which some say limits opportunities for poor parents.
“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 cream certain types of students or do they try to develop programs that are available to a wide variety of kids?”
Los Angeles school officials said it is difficult to predict whether there will be wholesale shifts of students until 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 and high schools showing the largest blocks, some ranging into the hundreds. Elementary schools run the gamut of space availability with anywhere from two to more than 100 seats.
The majority of the Valley space is in West Valley schools, which are not crowded and lost enrollment because of the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake.
Most of the schools reporting no space are in the Eastside, South-Central Los Angeles and the East Valley, areas where the immigrant population exploded during the 1980s.
Many schools that are perceived to be highly desirable by parents and that annually draw many transfer requests--among them Carpenter Avenue School in Studio City and Warner School in Westwood--report that they are filled to capacity.
Also, schools involved in major reform efforts, such as the district’s LEARN plan or the state’s charter school program, also tended 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 time, schools across the district were forced to hastily expand by installing bungalows and turning to year-round schedules. But the growth trend suddenly stopped two years ago for a variety of reasons, including population declines due to 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 neighborhood. Students from the neighborhood are guaranteed a seat even at full schools.
Some principals underestimated their space. Principal Clark 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 actually 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 liberally estimated 300 open seats to attract as many students as possible. “I just want to get the most kids I can,” he 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 them to only send children their neighborhood school.
Peter Lightfoot of Canoga Park said he has visited elementary schools in Woodland Hills near his wife’s work. When out touring, Lightfoot said, his first impressions last 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 this would not be his school of choice.
Some Valley principals said they have received calls from parents whose children attend private schools and who now want them to return to public campuses.
“When the economy is poor, a lot of people just can’t afford private schools,” said Catherine Lum, principal at North Hollywood High. “This seems like a chance . . . to put students back in public schools.”
Linda Miller, assistant principal at El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills, said the school has received about 50 to 60 calls from interested parents and students. “In general, we have a real good reputation for being an overall good school,” she said. “Our attendance is very good, we have a low dropout rate and we have a lot to offer.”
Open enrollment is expected to have a profound impact on sports teams throughout the district 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 onetime move to a high school outside their home area 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: B4