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School Search Is an Education

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Times Staff Writer

They descend on campuses in droves. They listen to sales pitches, peer at science projects, scrutinize writing samples. They take notes and they bring questions. Lots of them.

What’s the homework load? How many students to a classroom? How many kids play sports? Then the clincher: How many new students can you take?

It is school-shopping season, a time of heightened anxiety for thousands of parents and students searching for schools, private and public, charters and magnets. Some students take private school entrance exams while their parents pay up to $100 a pop to fill out applications. The much anticipated magnet brochure arrives from the Los Angeles Unified School District, and open houses and tours are in full swing from Sierra Madre to San Pedro.

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“I think, truthfully, it was one of the most stressful experiences of my life,” television producer Bonnie Raskin said of applying to private schools last school year for her daughter, now a seventh-grader at Marlborough School in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles.

“You would see all the same parents at all the same open houses, and you would want to be cordial, but there was a real competitive tension.... We all knew there are so few openings and so many qualified applicants,” said Raskin, who volunteers escorting this year’s crop of hopeful parents around Marlborough. “I know what they’re going through.”

Although many families still send their children to neighborhood schools, educators say increasing numbers of parents are weighing alternatives.

Parents now have more choices than ever before, educators and others say, citing such public school factors as the increasing popularity of specialized, or magnet, programs; California’s rapidly growing charter school movement; and a provision of the federal No Child Left Behind law allowing students in poorly performing public schools to transfer to better ones. Some districts, such as Pasadena Unified, are aggressively marketing their campuses as alternatives to private schools.

“Parents are more and more realizing that they not only have more choices, but they ... better choose, because the consequences are so great,” said Guilbert C. Hentschke, a professor of education at USC.

Safety, cost, class and school sizes, and proximity to home are among the factors parents look for, in addition to -- and sometimes more than -- curriculum and educational philosophy, Hentschke said.

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The process can be grueling.

Some parents spend hours researching class sizes and test scores. They soon learn that some of the area’s most sought-after private schools are also the most expensive, with tuitions approaching, or exceeding, $20,000 a year. Many schools, including the public magnets and charters, have far more applicants than they can accommodate.

“All the good schools get a lot of applicants; you just have to try at a lot,” said Laurie Lateju, an Inglewood mother who has become a veteran school shopper for daughter Lauren, 14, and twins Zoe and Zachariah, 13.

Over the years, she has scrutinized traditional public schools, a charter, a magnet and a variety of private campuses: Catholic, secular and single-sex schools. Her conclusion?

“The public schools have some really great teachers, but there are too many discipline problems,” said Lateju, who favors private schools.

She and her children joined about 450 others at a three-hour open house one recent Sunday on the tree-studded campus of the private, K-12 Chadwick School on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The prospective applicants sampled a ceramics class and heard from everybody from the headmaster to the students.

Touring Bishop Montgomery, a Catholic high school in Torrance, Christina Medina said the search “feels like applying for colleges.”

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She had joined other parents in the school’s crowded gymnasium last month before being assigned to one of the group campus tours starting every five minutes. Volunteers distributed purple pens with the school’s name and phone number, and yellow plastic bags for collecting leaflets from a dozen displays.

Medina said she and her husband were also looking at two other schools for their son, Mychael, 13: the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, a high-scoring, specialized public school on the Cal State Dominguez Hills campus, and Loyola, a prominent Jesuit high school for boys near downtown Los Angeles.

“We’ve decided we’re going to let Mychael choose” if he is accepted by more than one school, she said. “They’re all good.”

Lesley Shapiro of Sherman Oaks had a different experience when looking for a high school for her eighth-grade son, Wolfie. She said she considered only public schools that would not require a long commute.

Grant High School, closest to home, lost Shapiro’s vote right away when she noticed that its magnet program -- in communications, no less -- had not updated its website since 2002.

Her tour of Birmingham High School in Encino left her “a little disappointed.... I got no real feel for the school or the teachers.”

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And her visit to HighTechHigh, a small charter school in a brand new building, made her feel “like I was in an office building, not a high school.”

The humanities magnet at Cleveland High in Reseda, however, won her over.

“I really liked the teachers and the way they get the kids to think,” Shapiro said. “So we’re going to apply at Cleveland and just hope he gets in.”

At James Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley one chilly night, some 1,000 parents and their middle school offspring filled the auditorium, then met in classrooms, to check out two dozen Los Angeles Unified magnet programs. Every seat was taken at the first session on Monroe’s Law and Government Magnet, set up in a simulated courtroom with wood-paneled walls and a jury box.

When one parent expressed concern about the school’s year-round calendar, magnet counselor Donna Finkelstein quickly pointed out that the magnet’s schedule was similar to the traditional school year.

Several current students jumped in to praise the schedule. “I love it!” one said. “You can get a job during [breaks] or take extra classes or do community service. And you can take family vacations when places aren’t so crowded.”

While magnets and other specialized programs are the focus of Los Angeles’ school choice efforts, Pasadena Unified leaders have decided to market all their schools through weekly tours and an annual open house at district headquarters.

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Ty Gaffney, principal of Sierra Madre Elementary School, explained to interested parents recently that the school is adding a seventh and eighth grade, and offers both full-day and half-day kindergartens in response to family and community wishes.

As Gaffney spoke, Morgan Davey took notes.

“This is my wife’s favorite public school, and she wanted me to see it,” Davey said of the couple’s investigation of four or five public and five private ones for their 4-year-old daughter.

In the four and a half years since he took over Pasadena Unified, Supt. Percy Clark has tried to lure middle- and upper-income families back with full-day kindergarten, magnets and an open-enrollment system that allows parents to select a school outside their neighborhoods. Almost 30% of school-age children in the district, which also includes Altadena and Sierra Madre, attend private or parochial schools, compared with 10% in California and 11% nationwide.

“We’re trying to change that,” Clark said above the din of the district’s recent open house. “I’m really excited that all our schools are represented tonight, and that we have an opportunity to show what we have to offer.”

About 300 people snaked through the crowded halls of the district’s administration building while principals and PTA presidents chatted them up. In a computer-filled first-floor room, the district’s technology staff helped parents complete online applications.

Upstairs, the Pasadena Education Network continued its campaign to encourage parents to give the public schools a try.

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“The more I know, the better off we’ll be,” Julie Cole said in explaining why she was school shopping even though her daughter, Maggie, is just 2.

David Hitchcock said his family could afford private school for daughter Kate, 4, but, after investigating all the options, he and his wife decided “the public schools are a better value for our money.”

“We were surprised and happy to find our public schools are excellent,” Hitchcock said.

A far less freewheeling get-acquainted event occurs roughly once a week, from October to mid-February, at Marlborough School in Hancock Park.

Widely considered one of the top schools in the greater Los Angeles area, Marlborough, which enrolls 530 girls in seventh through 12th grades, holds two open houses for all interested families. But to attend a Morning at Marlborough, as the weekly events are dubbed, parents must have submitted their $100 application fee and made a reservation.

Each session is limited to about 50, and, by the time the last one concludes, some 300 parents will have gathered in the school’s “living room” to sip coffee from violet-patterned china cups. Formal portraits of the school’s founder and class presidents dating back decades line the walls as school leaders and students answer questions.

“We know this is a challenging process,” Head of School Barbara E. Wagner told parents before sending them off to examine classrooms, the student art gallery and other campus features.

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The school prides itself on its ethnic and economic diversity: Thirty-five percent of its students are minorities and 14% receive scholarships to help with the $22,400 annual tuition. While it receives as many as 450 applicants each year, the school expects to enroll about 85 students in next year’s seventh grade and about 10 in ninth grade.

Jack Walworth and Dorothy Low, whose sixth-grader, Emily, is applying, said they tried to ease the pressure by creating their own school guide with their daughter.

“We started looking at schools more than a year ago, so we’re very far into our research,” Low said. “We’ve done the manual to try to make it fun.”

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