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Parents fear students may lose placement outside L.A. Unified

Parents touring Richard Henry Dana Middle School in Hawthorne were impressed last week with descriptions of its history, science and arts programs, intrigued by a class conducting DNA experiments and pleased with the cleanliness of the campus. But one issue dominated: Will my child get a permit from the Los Angeles Unified School District to attend Dana?

It is a question on the minds of thousands of parents in the wake of a decision by Los Angeles schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines to greatly limit permits that currently allow more than 12,200 students who live in the district to attend schools elsewhere.

Cortines, facing a $640-million budget shortfall, said he wants the transfer students back -- along with the $51 million they bring in state funding. L.A. Unified has been lax in allowing so many permits in the past, Cortines said.

He argued that the district has improved academics and school options so that families shouldn’t feel the need to escape.

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But students’ flight from L.A. Unified factored into a controversial decision by the Beverly Hills school board, which voted in January to end special permits for hundreds of students who live outside of that city. According to L.A. Unified figures, 945 of those students were from the L.A. district.

Under the new plan, L.A. Unified would grant permits to students whose parents work within the boundaries of another school district and to students who would complete fifth, eighth or 12th grade next year. Those exceptions have done little to assuage parents’ anger and panic.

Other school districts are also concerned about the effects of L.A. Unified’s policy change. Ninety-nine districts in Southern California have at least one transfer student from L.A. Unified.

Torrance Unified, for example, has about 1,700 permit students and could stand to lose $9 million in revenue. Culver City Unified has 1,400 permit students and could lose up to $5.7 million, officials said.

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Parents are receiving assistance and encouragement in their fight.

“Don’t let them threaten you,” Alicia Galindo, the Wiseburn School District’s permit coordinator, told parents touring Dana Middle School. “It’s not going to be easy, but it’s worth the fight.” The 2,400-student Wiseburn district has about 435 students from L.A. Unified, 18% of its enrollment, said Supt. Tom Johnstone.

In Culver City, hundreds packed a school auditorium at an informational meeting last week coordinated by the district. Matthew Petersen, who lives in the West Adams area of Los Angeles and attends Culver City Middle School, collected more than 600 signatures on a petition for the Los Angeles school board.

“I was worried because I really wanted to go to Culver City High School, where they have a great arts program I’m interested in,” said Matthew, 14. “I feel like I’m getting a good education and I’m worried about losing friends. I hope they change their minds.”

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Culver City Schools Supt. Myrna Rivera Cote criticized the timing of the announcement, which came on March 17, two days after the deadline to notify teachers and other staff that they might be laid off.

“If this had come earlier in the year it would have allowed us to work together and plan, it wouldn’t be such a slap in the face,” she said. “All we can do now is react.”

The Las Virgenes Unified School District -- with nearly 1,400 permit students -- said it would help families write appeals to the L.A. County Office of Education, the final arbiter in transfer matters. Supt. Donald Zim- ring said L.A. Unified’s policy runs counter to state and national reform efforts to expand student choice.

“It’s a case where perhaps it needed to be more carefully thought through,” Zimring said. “We don’t want to lose students either, but do we want our youngsters to be held hostage to a school district?”

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Many parents contend that schools in their Los Angeles neighborhoods are inferior and complain that the announcement from L.A. Unified came too late for them to apply to magnet and charter schools.

Laurie Lathem, a Los Angeles resident whose son Luca, 7, is enrolled at Edison Language Academy, a Spanish-English immersion program in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, said some low-income families seeking better schools may be disproportionately affected by the permit revision.

“Families who speak very little English may find navigating the cumbersome appeal process very difficult,” Lathem said. “A lot of people with resources can find a way to open a business in Santa Monica or find a way to move, but so many of these people will be left out.”

Cortines said students in programs that are not available in L.A. Unified will be given special consideration. “Permits are not going to be automatically renewed or denied but looked at on their merits,” he said.

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L.A. Unified has long required parents who live within district boundaries to obtain permits to enroll elsewhere. Permit applications will be available beginning April 1, and the district has vowed to make a decision within five business days.

Cortines dismissed arguments that permits should be granted just because parents don’t like neighborhood schools. I “find it offensive when people think it’s their entitlement,” he said. He also accused some parents of simply not wanting to go to school with “those kids,” meaning low-income and minority students.

L.A. Unified Board member Yolie Flores, however, noted that 200 of the permit students would have attended Garfield High School, a struggling East Los Angeles campus of mostly Latinos.

Board members Steve Zimmer and Tamar Galatzan said they will ask their colleagues at the April 6 meeting to allow all permit students attending high school to graduate at their current schools.

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Richard Vladovic, a board member, said that although he understands the financial needs of the district, the needs of students must come first.

“An enormous number of children are involved and will be impacted,” he said.

carla.rivera@latimes.com


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