Thousands of parents vying to get their children into some of Los Angeles' most sought-after public schools find themselves caught in a byzantine bureaucratic process with strict racial quotas and almost insurmountable odds.
The Los Angeles Unified School District's 162 magnet schools, designed to be among the best campuses in the district, mostly are as competitive for applicants as any popular private school. Of the 66,000 applications last year, only about 16,000 new students were admitted. Applications for next year are due Friday.
The district advertises the program in a 12-page booklet called "Choices." In reality, however, L.A. Unified allows parents to select just one school. Most parents barely have a chance, let alone a choice.
"We tell parents it's a little bit of the lottery," said Sue Becker, the magnet coordinator of 32nd Street/USC Performing Arts Magnet. More than 4,000 students applied to the school last year for about 100 spots, making it by far the most popular school in the district.
The magnet program was established in 1977 as Los Angeles Unified's court-sanctioned answer to forced busing and a way to prevent racial isolation in the district. Designed to better integrate district schools, the magnet program sought to move white children into schools in predominantly minority neighborhoods, and vice versa, by luring them with specialized classes in science, communications and the arts, among other subjects.
Because of high demand, the district selects students by computer, using a complicated points system that awards more points to students whose neighborhood schools are overcrowded or located in predominantly minority neighborhoods. Under stringent racial guidelines, each magnet school should be 60% to 70% minority and 30% to 40% white.
But that system has created a number of quirky side effects. Because the district doles out points to children who have been rejected in years past, many parents try to play a game with the system, applying to longshot schools in the hope of being rejected so they can acquire points for later use. And the parents of multiracial students are counseled by some administrators on how to identify their children based on the ethnic needs of a particular school.
Now, nearly three decades after the magnet program began, approximately 53,500 students attend magnet programs. That includes about 20% of the district's Asian students and 16% of whites. Only 4.6% of Hispanic students -- the district's largest ethnic group -- are enrolled in magnet schools.
In a district where more than 90% of students are minorities, some critics wonder whether the racial breakdowns used by the magnet program have outlived their purpose.
"It's kind of ironic," said Ryane Straus, a doctoral candidate at UC Irvine who is writing her dissertation on the use of magnet schools for desegregation in L.A. Unified. "We have this policy for desegregation, and now it benefits whites and Asians -- more than blacks and Latinos -- even though they are more likely to go to college anyway."
The magnet program was born at a time when integration efforts were focused on black students and white students, said Julian Betts, a professor of economics at UC San Diego who specializes in school choice issues. Like many other urban districts, Betts said, Los Angeles Unified has seen its demographics shift markedly over the last 30 years.
"The focus on black and white today seems almost quaint," he said. "In large urban districts, the percentage of students who are white is becoming markedly small. There's only so much desegregation you can do."
Because the district receives federal desegregation funds for magnets, Los Angeles Board of Education President Jose Huizar said, the system allows "some of our highest-achieving subgroups [to have] a better shot at entering into a few competitive spots."
LaVerne Patterson, the district's magnet advisor, defended the program. District officials, she said, are following the court's orders.
The office of student integration, which oversees the magnet program, prints its "Choices" brochure and application in nine languages -- Russian, Armenian, Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Persian, Tagalog, Spanish and English -- Patterson said, and strives to make the program more reflective of the district's demographics. Still, she said, the schools are bound by the racial guidelines. "As long as we have white and minority students, we are [considered] federally integrated," she said.
The appeal of a diverse campus is one reason that parent Janet Smith has scoped out the magnet system. "We want our kid in a school that looks like the world," said Smith, whose daughter is a third-grader at Coeur d'Alene Avenue School in Venice.
Smith said her daughter is happy at her elementary school, which has the cultural and economic diversity the family desires. But she worries about her daughter's options for middle school. So each year, she has applied to the most desirable magnet schools in the hope of accumulating enough rejection points to make the move when the time is right.
Smith found out about the magnet program the way most parents do in the nation's second-largest school district: through other parents. "If I hadn't been told about it, I might not have understood it was an option," she said. "A lot of parents who have never heard of magnets never think to work this aspect of the public school system."
Other parents have similar criticisms. They say the "Choices" brochure is complicated and not at all user-friendly. Because parents select only one school for their child, some believe they are caught in a make-or-break situation. So they rely on other parents for help in working the system to their advantage and for information about popular -- and academically challenging -- magnet schools.
One such place is Community Magnet School in Bel-Air. Each day, 10 buses carry students from around Los Angeles to the brightly colored school, which boasts high test scores, small classes and a corps of adult volunteers. Last year, Community School received 31 applications for each of the 40 kindergartners it admitted.
Principal Pamela Marton said the school's staff works hard to attract a diverse applicant pool. They send out fliers in Spanish and English to at least 100 preschools in the city, hold orientation days in the school auditorium and field calls in English, Korean and Spanish from prospective parents.
"There are a lot of schools out there," Marton said. "And parents have many choices. Still, I wonder how many apply not to get in."
Briyana Lusis, 13, has been enrolled in Los Angeles Unified magnet schools ever since kindergarten. A student at Millikan Middle School Performing Arts Magnet in Sherman Oaks -- which gives her some advantage in applying -- she still faces stiff competition to get into the Cleveland Humanities magnet in Reseda. "It looks like a really good school," said the eighth-grader. Last year, Cleveland had 622 applicants for 220 spaces.
"Me and my friends are really nervous," Briyana said. "We really want to get in together. We keep on talking about it and stuff."
Janis Burges, assistant principal at Bravo Medical Magnet, near County-USC Medical Center, said that each year, her office hears mostly from parents desperate to get their children into the magnet program. They call the school, which last year received 1,605 applicants for 450 spots, and try their best to convince the staff to circumvent the computer-generated acceptance list.
"They call and they beg and they try and offer us food or whatever," Burges said. "But we are not allowed.... We have to say politely, 'There's nothing we can do.' "
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Los Angeles Unified's magnet school program was established in 1977 as a court-approved integration program. The schools' racial-ethnic composition as of 2004-05:
% of all LAUSD students: 72.8%
% all magnet students: 46.5%
% of all LAUSD students: 11.6%
% all magnet students: 19.2%
% of all LAUSD students: 9.0%
% all magnet students: 20.0%
% of all LAUSD students: 3.8%
% all magnet students: 10.2%
% of all LAUSD students: 2.2%
% all magnet students: 3.6%
% of all LAUSD students: 0.6%
% all magnet students: 0.6%
May not total 100% due to rounding.