You can’t miss the distinctive 140-foot stainless steel tower of the city’s year-old downtown arts high school from the adjacent 101 Freeway or from anywhere else nearby.
But figuring out how to enroll in the still-unnamed Grand Avenue campus can be elusive, and Los Angeles Unified School District officials are ignoring a school board policy regarding who should attend the $232-million, state-of-the-art school.
The drill for getting into Los Angeles Central High School No. 9, the campus’ temporary name, adds one more wrinkle to the ever more complex process of picking a school in L.A. Unified.
Students, for example, can apply to a magnet school and will get in based on their ethnicity and a detailed point system. They can also apply to charter schools, where they must win a lottery to enroll at the popular ones. Families also can consider nine new schools, although details about their academic programs won’t be available until at least February.
Some schools will make room for gifted students or athletes who don’t live in the area. Then there are local neighborhood schools where leftover classroom seats are available for the asking.
These offerings, and more, have different rules and different deadlines. Many are listed in the district’s “Choices” brochure. Charters, public schools that are independently run, are listed separately on the district website.
Even though students from across L.A. Unified can apply to the arts school, which opened in September 2009, the campus isn’t mentioned in that brochure. Nor is the process explained on the school’s multimedia website — though it did list three dates in December for tours aimed at prospective families.
Mostly it was word of mouth and independent sleuthing that brought Ted Bernstein and his son, Adam, 13, an avid ballet student, to a tour.
“The only reason I knew about it was that we were researching high schools and looking for a specific thing for our son,” said Bernstein, who lives in the mid-Wilshire area. “I read about it in the newspaper when it was getting ready to open up.”
Shawin Gonzalez, a 30-year-old college student who lives with her parents in Hollywood, was helping her younger sister find a school other than their neighborhood campus.
“I see it when I drive on the freeway,” she said. “I Googled: new, high school, Grand, California.”
During the tours, which drew nearly 200 students and parents, Principal Luis Lopez explained that students who live near the school apply through a lottery to fill 70% of classroom seats. Students from elsewhere will be accepted first-come, first-served starting Feb. 7 to fill the remaining 30%.
Administrators told parents that the 70-30 ratio is the school’s permanent enrollment policy, based on a decision made by the Board of Education.
But that explanation is incorrect, based on the actions of the board in March 2006.
The neighborhood advantage was supposed to be temporary until L.A. Unified relieved overcrowding in nearby schools. And now, the construction of schools and declining enrollment near Belmont High School has left area campuses less crowded than in other portions of the nation’s second-largest school system.
According to board policy, the arts high school should be opened up equally to non-local students, including middle-class students with an arts background as well as low-income students who happen to live farther away. The board voted to start with a minimum of 500 outside students.
Current school board President Monica Garcia, who represents the local area, did not participate in the 2006 decision; she joined the board months later.
She has “raised hell,” in her words, about enforcing a permanent 70-30 ratio, saying that no more than 500 outside students should ever be allowed.
For decades, overcrowding had forced thousands of students in that area to be bused out of the Belmont neighborhood west of downtown. And those who remained attended packed campuses that operated year-round on shortened schedules.
Community leaders and district officials, such as Garcia, regarded Central Los Angeles High School No. 9 and other new area campuses as partial payback for decades of insufficiency. The district is also developing performing arts training to benefit that area’s low-income elementary and middle-school students.
Former board member Marlene Canter, among others, sees an unfair, unauthorized revision of the rules on who can attend the high school. She said the board agreed to create a world-class arts school at nearly triple the original cost in exchange for districtwide enrollment.
“We made it clear that as soon as overcrowding was relieved, the arts high school would be open to the entire district,” Canter said.
Canter challenged the six current board members representing other areas to demand that families receive equal access.
The district’s demographer said 70% of seats must remain restricted for local students indefinitely. Other, nearby schools have cut class sizes, reducing the capacity of those campuses, said Rena Perez. And the arts school itself lost more than 200 seats when it added offices.
The district is actively recruiting arts high students only from the local area. In its inaugural year, the school had trouble luring such students. Most came from outside the area, including about 50 from beyond L.A. Unified entirely.
That prompted Garcia to complain behind the scenes that officials, including the principal, who was subsequently removed, weren’t doing enough to attract local students.
This school year, local interest soared. In fact, the school had room for only 85% of the local students who applied.
Non-local students faced much longer odds. More than 400 applications were submitted for 144 spaces before the school stopped accepting them.
Much of the demand from outside the area is from parents who, like Bernstein, have provided arts training for their children, and who were resourceful enough to learn about the school.
The school district, Bernstein said, “spent a tremendous amount of money on the facility, so it should be available to all the kids in Los Angeles.”