The application process for what the Los Angeles Unified School District bills as its "exciting educational choices" could not be simpler.
The form arrives in your mailbox with your child's name, address, age and other particulars pre-printed in the appropriate blanks. All you need to do is select among 135 intriguing campus programs, turn the form in by midnight tonight and voila! enter the world of magnet schools.
Not so fast.
First there is a little matter of "priority points," which goes something like this: If your child is already in a magnet, you get 12 points; if you're on a waiting list you get four for each year of waiting; if your local school is majority minority, add four; if that local campus is overcrowded, another four; if a sibling attends the magnet you covet, another three.
Got it? You better. For every 10 parents who play the magnet lottery game, eight will lose when admission letters go out in April.
"It's a very difficult system to understand and navigate," said parent Leibl Kisel.
Kisel should know. His daughter's application to the highly gifted magnet program that shares the campus at North Hollywood High School was rejected last year because Kisel neglected to sign it, thus landing him amid nearly 10,000 applicants that L.A. Unified turned away on such technicalities.
And since it was Kisel's own error that doomed him, he didn't even get rejection points to boost his chances of getting Yael into that magnet this year. "The chances," he acknowledges morosely, "are slim to none."
Every year more parents in Los Angeles and other big cities seek the refuge of magnet schools, a two-decade-old integration effort in which selected campuses offer specialized curricula ranging from math to law to foreign language. The goal is to attract (like a magnet) a racially balanced student body--particularly those relatively few whites who remain in the 89% minority district.
It's not clear whether magnets are better because of their structure or simply because they host a higher concentration of motivated students and parents. But they are among the best campuses that urban systems have to offer, outperforming regular public schools on academic tests.
This growing awareness creates magnet fever among parents early each year, leading to some desperate practices--several of which favor more sophisticated parents.
For example, knowing that it may take 20 priority points to qualify for the most crowded programs, some parents intentionally apply to overbooked magnet schools year after year, simply to gain waiting points. Others rush to get children as young as 5 tested by district psychologists for the most elite magnets, which serve intellectually gifted students.
Last year in Los Angeles, 70,000 people applied for 13,000 magnet school slots. If this were a capitalist system, supply would simply increase to meet demand. But the magnet system is far more rigid, because its goal is satisfying court rulings, not the marketplace.
"It's a pseudo-private school education at public expense," said Christine Rossell, a political science professor at Boston University who has studied magnet schools extensively. "What you see a lot of places is because there's this huge demand, the school district gives into that demand and gives up on racial balance."
Parents like Kisel struggle to understand why whatever works at magnets cannot be cloned.
"Why is it that the LAUSD can do it for the magnets and not for the rest of the kids?" he asked. "And is it really fair to do it only for magnets?"
Small Supply, Much Demand
Figuring out which magnet to pick by relying solely on L.A. Unified's magnet brochure, which for two years has been mailed to every district parent, can be a dizzying exercise in eduspeak.
Magnets range from the Banning High School Math/Science College Incentive magnet to the tiny business-oriented Fashion Careers High School downtown. They include the very focused zoo magnet located at North Hollywood High and two popular Centers for Enriched Studies campuses--one in the Mid-City area, the other in Sherman Oaks, that emphasize "creative/critical thinking."
The brochure gives a hint of the supply/demand ratio by comparing the number of last year's admissions to this year's openings for each school, but those numbers can be misleading.
Last year in Van Nuys, Valley Alternative School had an avalanche of applications--more than 1,200 for 100 kindergarten spaces. The reason? Word was out on the preschool circuit: As one of only three kindergarten magnets--and the only one in the San Fernando Valley--it was a good place to collect four wait list points that would give parents a boost the next year when they filed first-grade applications to other magnets.
Ask parents how they learned these unwritten rules and they mention other parents, teachers, even principals as sources.
Kisel got the skinny on North Hollywood High way back when his daughter was attending Carpenter Elementary's gifted classes, which are not part of a magnet.
His first setback came during her middle school years, when he was foiled by a simple structural change: The district switched schedules, ending middle school in eighth grade instead of ninth, giving his daughter two years to collect middle-school wait list points while competitors from other schools had three.
The point of the lottery approach is to make the process fair and humane--to avoid the pitfalls of a first-come, first-served system. The Pasadena Unified School District was among the last remaining holdouts of the lineup approach, which in early January caused dozens of parents to camp outside district headquarters overnight.
But to less-educated, non-English-speaking parents, who are less likely to understand the value of magnets and more likely to make mistakes on their applications, even the lottery seems obscure.
"They have no idea how to play that game," said Alice Callaghan, director of an after-school child-care center in the downtown garment district.
That may be one of the reasons why L.A. Unified's magnet students tend to be more affluent--with only one in seven qualifying for government-subsidized school lunches, compared to nearly half at non-magnet schools.
At the gifted and highly gifted magnets, the gap is even wider, with only 1% qualifying for the low-income nutrition help.
Ethnicity counts for magnet school placement, but in Los Angeles as in most urban areas, white students are in greater demand at many campuses than minorities because fewer of them apply. About a quarter of the white students who applied last year were accepted, the highest among any ethnic group, because in making admission decisions most magnets must strive for district targets of at least 30% white students.
About half reach that goal, making them among the few truly integrated campuses here. Another third have no integration target and few whites because the 1970 court ruling requiring L.A. Unified's desegregation recognized that white parents were unlikely to seek out magnets in South and East Los Angeles.
According to professor Rossell, such differences reflect her surveys: Black parents in 10 urban areas including Los Angeles were twice as likely as white parents to be willing to send their child to a magnet in an opposite-race neighborhood.
Overall, the ethnic breakdown of the district's 135 magnets is a quarter white, a quarter African American, a third Latino and about 13% Asian. That is higher than in the district overall for black, white and Asian students, indicating that their parents know how to play the magnet game, while the Latino numbers are markedly lower than their 70% share of the district. Based on an analysis of district statistics, last year Latinos were a third less likely to apply than other ethnic groups and at least twice as likely to have their applications turned down because they contained errors or arrived late.
Janitor Jose Reyes became an exception, through unusual circumstances.
Reyes' daughter, Diana, scored so well on the standardized tests given to all students at her Eastside elementary school that someone from the principal's office summoned them to a meeting. Would they be willing to send the 9-year-old girl on a bus to a gifted magnet? Certainly, they said.
From the start Diana loved it, though the volume of her homework turned her siblings off to any notion of following in her footsteps.
But as this year's magnet deadline approached, Reyes had no clue he should be applying for gifted middle schools for Diana, who will finish fifth grade this spring.
"I think they sent something from the school, but we have not read it yet," he said. "We have a couple months, I think."
The school district goes to lengths to address this information gap, with administrators attending a flurry of community meetings in the days leading up to the deadline.
A week ago, district magnet coordinator Ann Boucher stood before a dozen or so mothers, all parent representatives from the cluster of South L.A. schools around Jefferson High. She went through the magnet application line by line, pausing for Spanish translation.
Reasons for applying to a magnet are twofold, Boucher explained: You are interested in the specialty it offers, and "you want your child in an integrated environment."
The value of moving children out of their segregated neighborhood schools was not lost on any of the mothers. But persuading their friends is another matter.
"I know a lot of parents put these applications aside," Irma Sales said in Spanish. "We Latinos know education is important, but we think this country functions like our country. We need to adapt."
Sales, who emigrated from Mexico four years ago, is adapting. She intends to apply for a magnet school for the oldest of her four children this year because "she needs something more than the regular." Yet even after the morning of magnet application instruction, she remained confused. She said she would apply to "Adams," having heard "this program is magnificent." But the only Adams magnet is a gifted middle school, and her daughter is not yet old enough, nor has she been identified as gifted as required.
An Aura of Achievement
Magnets have a special halo around them, resting on both fact and fiction. Parents sometimes seek them out desperately as salvation from what they perceive as a drowning system. They assume that better teachers or principals may choose magnets for the same reason.
The schools also are allowed a little more spending money and autonomy than other schools, and the class size is usually smaller.
Using data from a nationwide study that followed eighth-graders into high school, University of Wisconsin-Madison sociology professor Adam Gamoran compared test scores from four groups of high schools: Catholic, nonsecular private, magnet and regular public highs. The raw differences were predictable, with the private schools far outperforming the public schools in all subjects.
But when Gamoran adjusted for differences in such factors as race, ethnicity, family structure and poor prior achievement, most of the gap between the two groups disappeared and magnets exceeded regular public schools by a significant margin in science, reading and social studies.
A study of New York City's careers magnets matched groups of students who applied to magnets and got in with those who did not. It found that the magnet students improved faster in reading and were less likely to drop out.
In L.A. Unified, no such weighted studies have been done, but a Times analysis of magnet students' raw scores from last spring--excluding those in the selective gifted magnets--found they hovered just above the national median. Non-magnet students scored far below, at the 31st percentile. When all district schools are ranked by those test scores, magnets filled 45 of the top 100 spots.
Performance of magnets varies by campus, but those that draw widely from other neighborhoods appear to post the best scores. For instance:
* Only six of 66 students travel to 107th Street School's math and science magnet from outside the two-mile radius of the South L.A. campus. Test scores were near the district's poor average, but above the rest of 107th Street School.
* Van Nuys High School's math and science magnet, on the other hand, ranked as high as some gifted magnets on test scores, even though it does not use their selective admission process. Of its 595 students, 515 rode a bus.
* At Hollywood High's performing arts magnet, which ranked in the top third of the district on the academic tests even though its theme is the arts, 306 of 353 students ride buses.
Such variation among magnets makes it even more difficult to quantify why magnets fare better than other schools, Gamoran said.
"Is it because of those self-selection factors or is it because when you're in a school that focuses on a theme . . . that is in sync with your interests and abilities, you will excel?" he asked.
Parents who win the magnet lottery don't always get what they thought they had bargained for. Schools rise and fall with the quality of the administrator and the commitment of the parents.
Silver Lake resident Tamara Maimon was horrified to discover last year that her son's math and science magnet at Plasencia Elementary in nearby Echo Park seemed to lack a comprehensive science curriculum and had given up its science lab to reduce class size.
"It seems to me there's more attention being paid to the [magnet] application process than the quality of what's being provided in the magnets," Maimon said. "Where the socioeconomic level is higher, there is more fund-raising going on, more monitoring, and those are the better programs."
A Demand Unfilled
Magnets remain, at their simplest, for some parents the most palatable end of a school-choice continuum. Public educators see them as an acceptable way to ward off school vouchers, in which parents could send their children to public or private school partially at government expense. In some communities, magnets are the few threads tying middle-class white families to public schools. In others, they are the best hope that minority parents have for a better chance for their children.
So why not respond to the demand and create more?
In L.A. Unified, only about 6% of students--44,000--are enrolled in magnet schools, contrasted with estimates of close to a third in other districts. The last time magnets were added here--24 of them in 1994--the cost was paid partly from cuts in the program's transportation budget.
Theodore Alexander, the assistant superintendent in charge of desegregation, says he hopes to propose additional middle school magnets this year, but money is an obstacle. It costs at least $250,000 to start a new magnet, he said, not including transportation and other ongoing costs.
That grates on school board member David Tokofsky, who remembers that the district relied on the glowing testimony of magnet parents two years ago when state budget cuts threatened the district's desegregation budget. Only 15% of that budget goes to magnet schools, with most of the rest spent on voluntary integration programs, which offer bus transportation to parents in impoverished communities who want their children to go to other campuses.
Magnets, Tokofsky says, offer the only tangible results of desegregation spending.
"You've got pent-up hostility and anger by the wait list that just takes what could potentially be the most avid supporters of your district and turns them into frustrated separatists or people who abandon your district," he said.
Magnet expert Rossell cautions against wholesale expansion of the program. She cites Boston, where all high schools are "controlled choice schools," which students select through a lottery process.
The problem, Rossell said, is the "control" cancels out the choice.
"You have all the complexity of the magnets--every school is up for grabs, but every school must be racially balanced at plus or minus 10% of the ethnicity of the district," she said. "You could choose a school and be OK for it in every respect, but get bused across town to a school you did not choose because your race is needed more for that school. It's the worst of all possible worlds."
Times education writer Doug Smith contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
What Magnets Attract
Los Angeles Unified School District magnet schools have more than twice as many white students and half as many Latinos as regular campuses. A look at these and other differences.
African American: 23%
African American: 14%
Students' median percentile ranking, 50 being the national norm, based on combined scores for Stanford 9 and Aprenda in spring 1997.
Gifted magnets: 82%
Regular schools: 31%
% of students with lunch subsidy
Gifted magnets: 1%
Regular schools: 50%
Sources: Computer analyses by Los Angeles Unified School District and The Times.