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The Waiting Game

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It may have looked like a repeat of Pasadena’s annual Rose Parade ritual--scores of people camping on the ground overnight, braving chill temperatures to secure a seat.

But the high-demand seats up for grabs Monday were in classrooms as more than 400 parents jammed school district headquarters on open enrollment day for three of the Pasadena Unified School District’s magnet schools.

More than half of those in line were seeking to enroll their children at Don Benito Fundamental School, an elementary school known for its discipline, parent participation and back-to-basics curriculum.

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Weary parents said the camp-out is a reflection of just how far they will go to get their children into what they believe are the best public schools.

“Don Benito is run the way all the schools should be run here,” said Matt Short, 49, who slept on the floor of school district headquarters Sunday in an effort to get one of 130 spaces at the school for his son, Matthew Jr. School officials let parents into the building when temperatures dipped into the low 40s Sunday night.

The urban, ethnically diverse Pasadena school district has nearly 23,000 students. Like many such districts, its test scores rank below those of its suburban neighbors. Further, one in four school-age youngsters in the district--which includes Altadena and Sierra Madre--attends private or parochial school. Still, voters recently approved a $240-million bond issue to upgrade the district’s rundown campuses.

To many parents who camped out in the cold, Don Benito compares to schools in the private sector.

“This is a wake-up message to the Board of Education that there isn’t equality in their schools,” said probation officer Russell Reed, who wants his son Russell Jr.--now a student at Noyes Elementary--to join his daughter at Don Benito. “It’s scary to see what parents are willing to do to get their kids in there.” The elementary school near his Altadena home has become an overflow site, where children are transferred from crowded schools, he said. “Parent participation is almost zero,” Reed said.

But Pasadena school officials said that although the district’s magnet schools--Don Benito, Norma Coombs Alternative School and Marshall Fundamental High School--are known for their parent participation, other schools have strong programs as well. “I think we have schools other than Don Benito that are every bit as good and we need to let people know,” said Pasadena Supt. Vera Vignes.

Vignes said she is aware that parents would like more magnet schools, but there is no room because of crowding at other campuses.

Vignes credits the growing number of parents willing to stand in line to the expansion of Norma Coombs, a school for kindergarten through eighth grade with a very loosely structured academic program.

By 8 a.m. Monday, when officials began accepting applications for next school year, the district corridor was strewn with coffee cups, doughnut boxes and even a few empty wine bottles in paper bags.

Altogether on Monday, the district received 271 applications for Don Benito, 121 for Norma Coombs and 95 for Marshall. Slots will be filled on a first-come, first-served basis with a view toward maintaining ethnic diversity and with priority given to students with siblings already enrolled in the school, officials said.

School board member Bonnie Armstrong said that the parent camp-out illustrates why Pasadena’s magnet schools are successful. “The big difference at Don Benito is you have an entire school of committed parents--so committed that they are willing to camp out all night for their children’s future,” Armstrong said.

Parents say that their commitment has been rewarded with strong academic results. On recent standardized tests, Don Benito’s student body outperformed all other elementary schools in the district, with Coombs finishing a close second, school officials said.

The district will begin enrollment for its other schools Feb. 9 and slots in well-thought-of schools such as Linda Vista Elementary will probably cause a few parents to get up early to enroll their children.

At the magnet schools, the competition for admission has grown particularly fierce, with parents arriving earlier each year and coming equipped with sleeping bags, food and cellular phones.

But Vignes said this will be the last year of the camp-outs because the district will go to a lottery system.


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