The Choice Is Yours, but It Won't Be Easy : School Visits, Accountability Reports Can Help Parents

We applauded the Los Angeles Unified School District when last summer it finally embraced changes that offered more academic opportunities for students. One such step--launched at seven Sylmar schools--was public school choice. Open enrollment will now be an option in at least 350 schools around the district this fall.

Choice within the public schools is a reasonable idea whose time has come. It replaces a system that essentially limited choice to those hoping to attend magnet schools, and to those parents who were willing to endure a lengthy permit process. But school choice is not a painless, magic bullet. We have some thoughts on how to view it, and on how to best take advantage of the opportunity.

First, the availability of 22,000 open seats in various schools may seem substantial, but it represents less than 3.5% of the classroom space in the district. There are just 9,100 open seats in the participating Los Angeles Unified schools in the San Fernando Valley. Preference may also be given to those parents who had already placed their children on a school's waiting list under the far more limited transfer program of the past.

Such space constraints put a premium on timely action by parents interested in shopping around for better schools. If you wait until the June 13 application deadline, you're likely to be left without much choice. It will pay to find out as much as possible about prospective schools, as quickly as possible.

Peter Lightfoot of Canoga Park is going about it in ideal fashion. He has already been out, making the rounds at likely schools in Woodland Hills, near his wife's office. "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," Lightfoot told a reporter in reference to a school that is no longer high on his shopping list.

That part about Lightfoot looking at schools convenient to a parent's workplace also spotlights a matter that parents should consider closely. Magnet school students are transported to their new schools by the district. That won't be provided for students transferring to new schools through the choice program. This will be a big hurdle to poor parents, and to anyone who may be facing long commutes. Schools that are the most convenient, or the least inconvenient, ought to be higher on your list.

So, you say you're just too busy to follow Lightfoot's example of site visits? And the schools you might want to consider might not be able to afford a $400 newspaper ad touting their attributes? No problem.

A 1988 state law has mandated so-called "Accountability Report Cards" on every school. They have been available in the district since 1990, but few parents request copies. The report cards assess a school's academic performance, class sizes, teacher assignments, instruction, curriculum, teacher evaluations, attendance, dropout rates, and more. The report cards provide an excellent and low-cost way to quickly obtain information about individual schools.

You may have also heard that your options are limited for joining schools that are already undergoing major reforms. True, but not entirely so.

Birmingham, Chatsworth, Kennedy and Taft high schools--all of which are in the Valley--are part of the district's site-based management reforms. These campuses have been given greater autonomy over everyday operations and have shown dramatic improvement in reducing dropout and truancy rates. There is considerable space at all four, ranging from 150 seats at Kennedy to 600 seats at Taft. A team of students from the latter recently distinguished itself by winning the U.S. Academic Decathlon, a respected, national scholastic competition.

Choice is hardly a panacea for the district's many ills, but it is still a worthy and necessary option.

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