LAUSD guide: How to get into a magnet school or specialized programs in Los Angeles

Students file out from Hamilton High School, an L.A. Unified campus with multiple magnet programs.
Students file out from Hamilton High School, an L.A. Unified campus with multiple magnet programs.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)
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It’s enrollment season for specialized Los Angeles public schools — including magnets and programs for gifted students — and the options and application process can be complicated.

Parents have until Nov. 15 to apply for spots throughout the sprawling district. Many of these specialized programs are offered within neighborhood schools; others have their own campuses.

Here are some tips to help guide you through the process:

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What are my options?

Los Angeles Unified School District has about 860 campuses spanning pre-K through high school. The school system is required to offer a seat to every K-12 student within their attendance boundaries at a school near their home. In addition, there are schools and specialized programs within the district that require an application. Independent charter schools and private schools also offer options. More on those later.

Here are your options within L.A. Unified:

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  • Magnet schools: Themed schools aim to draw students together from different racial backgrounds as part of a court-ordered integration program. Some offer additional rigor for students identified as gifted or highly gifted.
  • Schools for advanced studies: Programs at neighborhood schools, which are called “resident schools” in district glossaries, are for students who qualify as gifted or high-achieving.
  • Dual-language programs: Classes are taught in English and a second target language. There are six language options, including Spanish, French, Korean, Arabic, Mandarin and Armenian.
  • Affiliated charter schools: Unlike most independent charter schools, these are unionized and the district runs them, although they have some flexibility around spending, hiring and curriculum. Neighborhood students have priority.
  • Admission criteria schools: These include one all-boys school and an all-girls school, both for grades 6-12. Four high schools partner with college campuses, where students can take high school and college classes at the same time. Three are located at L.A. Southwest College, Los Angeles Trade Tech and Los Angeles Harbor College. The fourth is on the Charles Drew Middle School campus, but offers an associate’s degree from L.A. Trade Tech. Contact each school to find out the criteria for admission.
  • Permits with transportation: This is how the district refers to a small and voluntary integration program, which gives transportation permits to students of color who are bused to schools with a larger white population. This year there were only 168 available spots at three schools: Revere Middle School in Pacific Palisades, Portola Middle School in Tarzana or Taft High in Woodland Hills.
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What information is available to help me choose?

Many educators recommend first visiting your neighborhood school for a tour and to check out its program. For the specialized programs, at this time it’s best to call schools to find out if there are open houses, if a visit can be scheduled, or if an appointment can be made with a school official.

There are also options to compare schools online:

  • The California Department of Education’s “School dashboard” rates public schools using a scale of colors in categories including test scores, absenteeism and suspensions. It also shows how the school’s different demographic groups perform within these categories. It does not, however, show the ratings for specialized programs within a school. Some people complain about this dashboard because it is not easy to compare schools.
  • Websites run by private companies include GreatSchools.org and Niche.com publish user reviews and compare schools with letter grade or 1-10 ratings based largely on test scores, which is a controversial practice.
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What kind of information is available from L.A. Unified?

L.A. Unified has a tool to help identify specialized programs at individual schools within the district. But it excludes independent charter schools. You can find the tool here.

Magnet search
A screenshot of the L.A. Unified school search tool.
(Los Angeles Unified School District)

This tool allows you to select among the many education, social service and sports programs offered by the school district — for instance a Spanish dual-language program, a school with visual arts, an after-school program that provides supper, a lacrosse team. You will see the filter options on the left.

You cannot filter based on test scores. But the results show detailed pages about the schools that match your selections. Those pages offer information like standardized test scores, attendance, and results of a survey on how parents and students feel at the school when it comes to issues like whether students feel safe at school.

If you do not have access to a computer, a 72-page L.A. Unified “Choices” brochure with all the options is available at every school site, district office and Los Angeles public library.

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I’ve heard about a ‘point system.’ What is it?

The point system applies only to the magnet application process. Students are given points over the course of their school years for a number of factors, including whether they have attended or have been rejected from a magnet school, or have a sibling already attending the magnet school to which they are applying.

When the application deadline closes, district officials look at the total number of points for each applicant. Students with the most points are accepted until the spots are filled. If they reach a group of students with the same number of points and not enough spots for all, a lottery is held among those students. Students can be put on wait lists after seats are filled. Points are not based on grades or tests scores.

Here are the point categories and how a student collects them:

magnet points
(Los Angeles Unified School District)

It is important to understand how to collect points if a student wants to attend a high-demand school like Community Magnet Charter, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies or Lake Balboa College Preparatory Magnet. Savvy parents have learned how to accumulate the points needed. Parents who are new to the process should not be deterred — even the most in-demand magnets often reach deep into their waiting lists every year. You can call the school’s magnet coordinator to ask for your place in line, and the likelihood of getting a spot.

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Do other schools have enrollment requirements?

Some campuses give priority to students who live within the residential boundaries of the school. For students seeking to attend a gifted or highly gifted magnet school, verification of their status is required.

Students can be classified as academically gifted or high ability through confirmation from the principal, an LAUSD psychologist, a “standard exceeded” score on the state standardized tests or a score in the 85th percentile or higher nationally on standardized tests approved by the district. Students can be classified as highly gifted if they score 99.5% to 99.9% on the district’s intellectual assessment. Students who score 99.9% are given priority for enrollment in highly gifted programs.

Students who want to participate in the permits with transportation program must live within the boundaries of designated schools to qualify. The eligible middle schools are Audubon, Drew, Gompers, Harte Prep, Mann, Muir and Obama Global Middle. The high schools are Ánimo College Prep, Crenshaw, Dorsey, Jordan, Locke, Manual Arts and Washington Prep.

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I know which school (or schools) I want. How do I apply?

Until Nov. 15, you can apply for any of the six specialized L.A. Unified programs through a single application, called “e-choices” online and “Choices” on paper. Depending on the type of program, you can list up to three preferences on the paper application. The online e-choice application allows families to apply to an unlimited number of affiliated charters and criteria schools.

The paper applications are available at schools and at six local district welcome centers. Applications must be mailed to this address: Unified Enrollment, P.O. Box 513307, Los Angeles, CA 90051.

You can call the district’s “Choices Support Line” at (213) 241-4177 for help.

When you fill out the application know that each program — magnet, affiliated charters, dual language — conducts its own lottery at the central district office. If you have applied to several schools, there are many scenarios.

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Here are some application suggestions :

  • If you want your child to attend only one specific magnet school, it may benefit you to list only that school and not apply to other magnets. Once you are accepted to a second or even third choice magnet, you will not be put on a waiting list for your first choice magnet. When you apply to only one magnet, your child will be placed on the waiting list if not accepted in the first round.
  • Your child can be wait listed at two different types of schools — for example, a magnet and a dual-language program.
  • Students have three weeks to accept a placement. If you’re in the scenario above, and your child is accepted in a magnet and wait listed for a dual language, for instance, you will remain on the dual-language wait list even if you accept the magnet placement.

Many families end up on several waiting lists. Patience is often rewarded, but parents should make sure they have a back-up plan if they don’t get their first choice school.

If you miss the Nov. 15 deadline, there will be a second application window starting Feb. 3 as schools fill open spaces.

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Why do I have to choose an ethnicity?

Magnet schools and permits with transportation are two programs that L.A. Unified began under a court-ordered integration plan about four decades ago. About 20% of magnet schools aim to maintain an enrollment that is 30% or 40% white. Today, only about 1 in 10 LAUSD students are white, therefore white students have a better chance of getting into many magnets.

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What about charter schools? Private schools?

Outside of L.A. Unified there are also independent charter schools, secular and religious private schools, and schools in other school districts.

Charter schools are free and do not have attendance boundaries. They must accept students through a random lottery, although some charters automatically admit siblings and have permission to offer a preference for students from low-income families. Their deadlines vary, and you can look for a school on the California Charter Schools Assn. website.

Private schools also have their own application processes and deadlines, and tuition costs can vary enormously. Some schools list their tuition on their websites. But don’t let the price tag deter you — parents can inquire about financial aid at these schools.

Students from outside L.A. Unified can transfer into the district, and L.A. Unified students can apply to transfer elsewhere, by filing an inter-district permit.

For the record:

9:30 AM, Nov. 05, 2019 An earlier version of this article referred to Valley Alternative Magnet. It has changed its name to Lake Balboa College Preparatory Magnet.

The information in this story came from the following sources:
-L.A. Unified E-choices website and brochure (also available in Spanish, Armenian, Russian, Chinese, Tagalog, Farsi, Vietnamese and Korean)
-Barbara Jones, L.A. Unified spokeswoman
-George Bartleson, executive director of the L.A. Unified Office of School Choice
-Ani Packard and Jodie Newbery, L.A. Unified Program Policy Development Advisors
-Jennifer Macon, Cleveland Humanities magnet coordinator
-Jon Deane, GreatSchools.org CEO


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Sonali Kohli is a reporter covering education for the Los Angeles Times. A product of Southern California, she grew up in Diamond Bar and graduated from UCLA. She worked as a metro reporter for the Orange County Register and as a reporter covering education and diversity for Quartz before joining The Times in 2015.