Although Los Angeles magnet schools have long been seen as an elusive and exclusive club, more than two dozen of them are under-enrolled and actively looking to fill classroom seats.
At Montara Avenue Elementary in South Gate, for example, the math, science and technology magnet can accommodate 220 students; last year just 76 applied.
On a recent day, each of Montara's magnet students created projects on stars, the sun and the moon for an upcoming fair aimed at attracting new students. A pack of third graders finished their multiplication tables and gathered in the middle of the class to listen to a classmate's presentation. He proudly showed off a three-dimensional model of the sun.
Montara is one of about 27 under-enrolled magnet programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District; this year the campus has 34 openings in second to fifth grades.
The district's 173 magnet schools enroll more than 59,000 students; last year, more than 25,000 landed on a waiting list because their preferred schools were oversubscribed. But hundreds of seats remained open.
The district is hoping to address that issue this year by allowing families to choose up to three programs, increasing the students' chances of getting accepted. The magnet application deadline is Nov. 16.
Estelle Shepherd Luckett, director of the district's Student Integration Services, said she had "no idea" why some programs receive thousands of applications for hundreds of openings and others have empty seats. This school year, there are more than 2,000 openings in all magnets.
"People have different reasons for why they pick and choose a school. As a parent you look for the location and for what the magnet is offering," she said.
Some schools are feeling left in the dark.
"We don't have as many students as we can take," said Sarah Marshall, the magnet coordinator for Nueva Vista Elementary School's visual and performing arts magnet in Bell. "A lot of parents don't know we're here, or if they do they don't want their child to go to a performing arts school. They are looking for math and science."
Magnets were originally designed as a voluntary integration program to draw students to schools outside of their neighborhoods. The magnets have a complicated point system dictating enrollment, as well as racial quotas. The programs are required to enroll a certain percentage of white and minority students.
They are widely considered prized programs in L.A. Unified, where principals can select teachers and parent involvement tends to be higher. The district also provides transportation for magnet students at a cost of $64 million.
"If we have schools that are historically under-enrolled, [that] should tell the district something," said school board member Tamar Galatzan. "Parents are clamoring for more options and if we have magnet schools that aren't meeting the needs of our students and their parents, then we need to look at them and figure out why that option isn't appealing."
Margarita Gil pored over the magnet program's informational packet at the front desk at Westminster Avenue Elementary School in Venice on a recent day. She squinted at the list of campuses and declared a prospective middle school for her 10-year-old son.
"Maybe that one," she said, pointing to Paul Revere Middle School in Brentwood. Its magnet had 571 applications last year for 169 openings. Westminster, meanwhile, had 81 applications and 107 openings.
The gap stumped school officials, who attributed it to the economic downfall and the gentrification of the Venice neighborhood.
"When the economy fell, people couldn't afford to live in Los Angeles," said Karen Reynolds, Westminster's magnet coordinator. As families moved out, they were replaced by a new wave of young, single and childless residents.
Still, some remnants of the old neighborhood remain. One recent morning, Spanish-speaking grandmothers walked their grandchildren, students at Westminster, along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, past luxury boutiques and coffee houses, their backpacks on wheels sharing the sidewalk with Maclaren strollers.
The Westminster program, like Montara, is a math, science and technology magnet with a history of high test scores, though its program filled up after the school year started, possibly because of walk-in and late applications.
District officials say some parents get caught up in the frenzy of applying to the popular programs. The district's informational brochure, Choices, shows how many openings are available in each program and lists the number of applications that were received for the previous school year.
"We get a lot of parents who try to get into Balboa" Elementary School's gifted magnet in Northridge, which received 1,123 applications for its 162 openings, Luckett said.
The disconnect might lie in the schools' and districts' advertising efforts.
"I don't think the district does a very good job about getting the word out about different school choices, but honestly right now we're working with no budget," Galatzan said. "But then again, if you have a program that is successful, parents will find it."
Four years ago, Gil said she lucked out when she came across Westminster's computer and math magnet after extensive Internet research. She let out a heavy sigh at the thought of having to do it again.
"His specialty is in those areas," Gil said in Spanish. "I drive 40 minutes every day [from West Adams] to have him here. It's far but it's worth it."
Westminster attempted to attract new parents to a recent magnet fair, announcing a tour of the school that was also advertised on its front lawn marquee.
No parents showed up.