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Valley Interview : Magnet School Coordinator Has Students Making Headlines

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s highly regarded magnet schools first opened their doors 17 years ago following the divisive mandatory busing battles. A court order established the magnet schools to foster ethnic integration by drawing students from all parts of the massive district to campuses outside their neighborhoods. The lure of the magnets was intended to be their specialized courses and smaller class sizes.

Since the first seven magnets were created, the program has spread to 108 campuses districtwide. This year alone, 24 new magnet schools were approved, creating a total of about 10,000 openings.

The magnets’ special course offerings include math, science and technology, gifted programs, law and government, performing arts, and medicine and health.

While Grant High School is opening a communications magnet this fall, the first journalism and technology magnet in the district will open its doors at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys. Between telephone calls, deliveries and students and parents appearing in her office to find out about the program, coordinator Marsha Rybin spoke recently with Beth Shuster, who covers education for The Times Valley Edition.

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Question: Why open a magnet here, and why open a journalism and technology program?

Answer: We wanted to open a magnet because it’s a positive thing to have on a school site. It brings different kinds of students to your school population. It enriches the whole school program. We picked journalism because there wasn’t a magnet in that field, and we have a really good school newspaper. . . . We’re not sure yet how that will fit into our program, but it could.

Q: And what about the technology part of it?

A: It’s using computers, the Internet, bulletin boards. Additionally, the teachers ordered a lot of software, so it’s a way for the kids to be doing activities related to their courses on the computers. We have 32 new IBM computers that are linked together. We spent a lot of money on those. The kids here will be able to hook up with schools all over the U. S. and have study groups with students all over the country. It’s really neat.

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Q: Speaking of money, how much did it cost to start the magnet?

A: $250,000, not including salaries and bus transportation.

Q: How many teachers did you hire, and what are their backgrounds?

A: We hired seven. They come from all over the city. They all have a background in their discipline, and they have some expertise in either journalism or computers.

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Q: How many teachers applied to come here, and why did they want to come?

A: Sixty. We interviewed for several months. Teachers wanted to come here because students are motivated to be here. They have to ride a bus to get here, so that says you want to be here, and that’s delightful to teachers. Birmingham is a nice, safe campus. And to get in on the creation of something, most of us believe, is pretty good.

Q: How many students do you expect to enroll this year and are you advertising the new program?

A: We can take 180 in ninth and 10th grades this year. I still have space available; we’re not full. We’re using the waiting lists of kids who didn’t get into magnets when they first applied and calling them. I’ve been working all summer since I got the waiting lists. There’s been community interest. It’s also been word of mouth. Next year, we’ll have 11th grade, and the year after we’ll have 12th-graders. Next year, I think, all of the new magnets, like Grant, will have a lot of kids. There probably will be waiting lists.

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Q: Where are the students coming from?

A: From all over. It’s about equally distributed between Los Angeles and the Valley, and there’s an ethnic balance that we’re meeting.

Q: What are students and parents saying about it? Why are they interested in coming to Birmingham?

A: Some are interested in it because they’ve always been interested in journalism. Some are just interested in being in a magnet, any magnet.

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Q: But isn’t this designed specifically for students interested in careers in journalism?

A: No, it’s just a regular college-prep program. By that I don’t mean that every single child will go to college, but they will have everything they need to go to college. Journalism is our focus, and obviously, some kids are interested in that. It’s a combination of things.

Q: But it’s not necessarily for kids who want to go into newspapers or broadcast journalism?

A: No, but we want to expose them to all of that. We have some magazines (that) have expressed interest in internships and helping us out.

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Q: Will the magnet students interact with the other Birmingham students or will they be totally separate from the regular campus?

A: They will take some classes with students not in the magnet. Physical education, mass media, humanities and some electives will be taken in the regular school. Birmingham has all kinds of programs for the students--clubs, athletics, we have a pool. Everything you would want to do on a regular campus, you can do here in the magnet. But you’re in a school with just 180 students. It’s kind of like the best of both worlds: big but little. You don’t want to be in a setting that’s so small that you don’t have football, cheerleading, a swim team.

Q: You’ve said there’s more money for a magnet school. What will that mean for the magnet and where does the extra funding come from?

A: It’s integration funding. We’re the last of integration. All those buses you see flying around the city aren’t for integration, they’re because of crowding. The money enables us to hold class sizes at 32 students. It’s more money--not in our paychecks--but for the school. We can buy books, computer software. Paper for the (copy) machine so teachers can duplicate interesting things for the students. The smaller size means we’ll be able to get to know the kids better.

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Q: What kind of journalism training will the students get?

A: In their English classes, they’ll learn elementary journalism. How to write a news story, how to dissect a story, how to know what’s a news story and what’s an editorial. How to write a letter to the editor. And different kinds of writing styles.

Q: What is your background?

A: I was a teacher here, then I took a year’s leave of absence to teach in a private school and then I came back. I taught history before, and I’ve taught at a gifted school. I’m also a parent, and I know how terrific magnets are. I also know how hard they are to get into. To walk in, like people are doing here, and fill out an application and get in is great. This is pretty terrific.

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‘Teachers wanted to come here because students are motivated to be here. They have to ride a bus to get here, so that says you want to be here, and that’s delightful to teachers. Birmingham is a nice, safe campus.’


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