Still seeking that elusive ‘right’ school

Times Staff Writers

When it comes to looking out for her children and grandchildren, Patricia Britt, a no-nonsense hospital nursing director, is nobody’s fool. Yet here she is, in late July, beside herself because she hasn’t yet settled on a school for her 8-year-old grandson Corey to attend in the fall.

Britt and her son, who are raising Corey together, gradually became dissatisfied with the private school that’s putting a $400-a-month strain on the family budget. But they have concerns about the quality of the public schools close to their Hyde Park home. And schools that they do like, such as the View Park Preparatory charter school run by Inner City Education, have a discouragingly long waiting list.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 2, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Schools: An article in Sunday’s California section about parents seeking new schools for their children referred to Gino Natalicchio’s search for a school for “her 11th-grade daughter.” Natalicchio is male.

“My son has been looking,” Britt said. “He’s getting kind of frustrated. It’s almost to the 99th hour of making the decision.”

No one knows exactly how many students are still without a school, but indicators show that the annual last-ditch scramble for a seat at a school of choice is in high gear:

* Some 28,217 students remain on waiting lists to get into Los Angeles Unified School District’s prized magnet schools, which are special programs established to promote integration.


* Popular charter schools -- free, public schools run independently of the school district -- are mostly oversubscribed: The Inner City Education Foundation, which operates the View Park charter schools, pegs its waiting list at more than 5,000.

* The season for admission into popular private schools is long past, but parents are hoping to find an opening, perhaps at a school looking for a particular demographic to round out its student body.

So how does a parent get into this predicament? Some simply waited too long. Others have diligently researched and visited schools, applied on time but lost admission lotteries or discovered they lack sufficient “priority points” to gain admittance into magnet schools. Some have refused to give up on a private school slot.

By law, every child is ensured a spot in a public school. But for this mass of families, the neighborhood school typically is not the preferred choice.

The Los Angeles school district’s magnet office tries to help. So does its open enrollment office. A call to a school -- public or private -- can uncover unexpected openings; informal parent networks also accumulate information. Parents often find that the local public school is better than first presumed, or has a special and worthy program within the larger campus that they can settle on.

Then there are parents who lie to get into a school, which can backfire if a school investigates.

“It was really difficult when my daughter didn’t get a sibling permit” for an in-demand Westside school, said Kerry Allen. “Because I know families who used false addresses.”

Other parents have worn out shoe leather, spent evenings poring over test scores and attended lotteries.

Debra, who lives in North Hollywood, visited seven public schools in recent months. Like other parents in limbo, Debra asked that her last name not be used, for fear that publicity could hurt her son’s chances of getting into a school.

She had started at her neighborhood campus, where, she said she was told there was no advanced curriculum for her entering kindergartner, who can read.

So she turned elsewhere. Her son sits more than 100 deep on the waiting list at Sherman Oaks Elementary. At the Community Magnet, just west of the Bel-Air Country Club, he is so far down that “they said there’s not really a chance.”

She also filed a permit application at the newly refurbished Hesby Oaks in Encino. “They’re so full they have a waiting list even for siblings.”

The staff at Lanai Road Elementary in Encino said her son could probably enter its School for Advanced Studies, an accelerated program, but they wouldn’t know for sure until after school starts.

Debra’s other favored options, at this point, are two private schools; each would cost about $20,000 a year. She’s not sure she can afford that on her husband’s salary as a stuntman. She once ran a modeling agency but currently works part-time.

There’s also a desperate back-up plan: Rent out the family’s North Hollywood house and move to a Malibu trailer park to qualify for schools there. But the seller wants $400,000 for the trailer, and hookups are at least $2,000 more a month, she said.

Issues of race, the right academic program and safety, among other things, all play into the complex and personal decision behind school choice. Several Anglo parents expressed discomfort about neighborhood schools that are almost entirely Latino -- L.A. Unified is 72.8% Latino. These same parents insisted they want diversity; to them, however, that means a core of children who look like their own.

But the summer search transcends Anglo angst. Minority parents also are looking for options.

There is a waiting list of more than 300 minority students who have signed up to be bused to the Westside or west San Fernando Valley. And, charter schools that have opened in working-class, black or Latino neighborhoods have been flooded with applications.

“We have a whole lot of issues in the African American community: What we face with young males -- the gang issues,” said Joanne Driver-Jordan, a respiratory therapist who lives in the Hyde Park area. “But education is a high priority in the list of priorities -- not wanting your child to go to a school that is racially divided, where one race hates the other. And your child is trying to do academics in that setting?”

Driver-Jordan got in on the opening of View Park Prep, in Southwest Los Angeles, when her daughter was in third grade -- she’ll be a junior.

Her daughter previously was enrolled in private school, which remains the escape valve for many.

The most sought-after private schools have winter application deadlines and waiting lists.

At the Brentwood School, for example, lower school admission currently is only open to students from out of state.

There is slightly more flexibility for middle and upper school, said spokeswoman Shirley Blake.

And private schools can be choosy.

“Generally, if we’re full in a grade level, we have to say no, but if we ascertain that someone is a really spectacular student, we’ll always try to find room,” said Steven Burnett, an administrator at Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth.

An increasingly popular -- and often pricey -- option is an educational consultant who has relationships with admissions directors and information about openings.

Consultant Lana Ayeroff Brody said many admissions officers seek specific characteristics -- for example, a girl entering fourth grade or a minority boy for the ninth grade -- to balance gender or improve ethnic or socio-economic diversity.

Gino Natalicchio’s family recently moved to the region from Colorado and began calling private schools “from Palos Verdes to Marina del Rey.”

“I didn’t think we would find a space,” said Natalicchio, a college professor. She’s begun the enrollment process for her 11th-grade daughter at Vistamar in El Segundo.

Some magnets still have seats. There’s space in the Law/Government Magnet at Monroe High in North Hills, for example.

Deliverance just arrived for Crizelda Rodriguez, who had been among 2,200 on the wait list at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, where her son will enter eighth grade and can remain through graduation.

“After five long years of anticipation,” she said, “I was elated and relieved that my son finally got in.... I was actually worried sick that he may have to go to a ‘regular’ public high school.”

After months of travails, Kerry Allen, who lives near Culver City, finally ended a winner after finding Westside schools for both her kindergarten daughter and middle school son.

Her son had been wait-listed at Emerson Middle and New West Charter -- and he barely failed to qualify for the gifted magnet at Palms. Salvation came recently from a teacher who recommended him for a different accelerated program at Palms.

And Allen scored a “child-care permit” for her daughter at Mar Vista Elementary after looking into 12 other schools. Such permits are granted to working parents who rely on child care at or near a school. But the permit must be renewed every year and could be revoked if local students need the space.

Everyone will end up somewhere -- happy or not.

Parent John Ayers is sticking with his Westside home school after exploring ways to “trade-up.”

“Three years ago, before I started worrying about schools, I had a full head of hair,” he said. “Our kids will survive; the question is: Will us parents survive?”




Still looking?

Thousands are still seeking the right school. Among their options:

* Your home school: You can get in -- no matter what, no matter when -- except at schools where students are bused for overcrowding.

Tip: Inquire if campus has a School for Advanced Studies.

* Open enrollment: Schools outside your neighborhood can let you in if there’s space. This permit can’t be taken away and also will work for brothers and sisters, as long as one sibling continuously attends the school.

Tip: Call L.A. Unified’s school-management services at (213) 241-6414 for help. And, within reason, keep calling schools of interest. Space can open up just after school starts.

* Child-care permit: Allows working parents to enroll students based on child-care needs. Permit needs to be renewed each year, and there’s no guarantee it will be.

Tips: Line up documentation; be prepared to target more than one school.

* Magnet schools: Admission priority is based on points. Applicants get credit if neighborhood school is overcrowded, if that school is predominately minority and other factors. Since the underlying goal is integration, schools have to maintain certain percentages of white versus nonwhite students. For details:

Tip: Call Student Integration Services at (213) 241-4177 about possible openings. Sometimes magnet coordinators at full schools know openings elsewhere. If your child is academically advanced, that could be a ticket into some programs for gifted students.

* Charter schools: These independent public schools fill up by lottery.

Tip: Space sometimes opens up during the school year, after last year’s wait list has been retired. Reputable charter school groups also are opening new schools and signing up students or developing waiting lists. Contact:

* Private schools: Expensive, choosy and the enrollment time has long passed for most, but....

Tips: Keep in mind the different kinds -- ranging from college prep to parochial to cultural. Seek advice from other parents and the schools themselves. Some church or temple schools welcome all faiths. Costs range wildly; some of the most expensive offer financial aid to improve diversity. Beyond the sticker price, remember building fees, books and fundraisers.