The race for school permits is on

How far will one go for a La Cañada Unified education? Ask the five dozen parents who camped out outside district headquarters through the weekend — some for 48 hours — in order to be at the top of the inter-district permit list for the 2012-13 school year.

“I came at 2 p.m. on Saturday and I was No. 18 in line,” Jennifer Genske, an Altadena resident applying for the youngest of her four children, said after filing her paperwork Monday morning. “The first person came at 6 a.m. Saturday, which is earlier than they did last year.”

A No. 2 state-wide ranking and an academic performance index score of 942 means that La Cañada Unified has long attracted education-focused families who buy homes in the area primarily for the schools.

But plenty of non-resident families also want in, and the loosening of state guidelines on interdistrict permits, combined with La Cañada Unified's need to stem declining resident enrollment, is intensifying the interest in, and the competitiveness of, the inter-district application process.

District officials opened their doors to permit hopefuls shortly before 6 a.m. Monday, the first day interdistrict applications were accepted. Ninety minutes later, they already had received more than 100 applications.

“I am not too surprised at the interest from families outside the district in our schools, based on the success of our students on standardized tests and the success in matriculating to college, coupled with the incredible array of extra curricular activities,” school board President Scott Tracy said. “It is a pretty strong program.”

Priority for interdistrict student enrollment is given to the children of district employees, followed by those who already have siblings in the system, and then to those whose parents work within district boundaries.

This year, a little more than 13% of La Cañada Unified's 4,073 students — just shy of the current 15% cap — live outside district boundaries. District officials plan to accept about 40 permitted students for the 2012-13 school year.

“Forty additional permits are approximately 1% of the total student population of the district,” Supt. Wendy Sinnette said. “There would, however, be some attrition in the current permit numbers, especially any permitted students in the graduating senior class.”

Out-of-district families will be notified of the status of their applications starting in early May, officials said.

The number of interdistrict permit students has been a point of contention for some local parents, who have expressed concerns that they are diluting the neighborhood feel of La Cañada schools. But the permits have proven to be an invaluable tool for district officials trying to keep enrollment numbers up and district coffers full.

The district receives from the state the same amount of funding per head for permitted students as it does for resident students, and the strategic acceptance of permitted students can actually help keep class sizes small.

The interdistrict permit cap will be formally discussed at a future school board meeting, Sinnette said.

Altadena resident Stephanie Leiter arrived at 6:30 a.m. Monday to apply for a ninth-grade slot for her son. He is currently enrolled in a private school in Pasadena where his father works, and he could continue there next year. But the La Cañada schools' high test scores and their community feel are compelling, Leiter said, and the private school doesn't have much of an athletic program.

“It would be a good fit for him,” said Leiter, who works in La Cañada. “He is an athlete and he wanted sports.”

Altadena resident and Jet Propulsion Laboratory employee Akiko Hayashi arrived at 7:30 a.m. Monday to submit an application for a fifth-grade spot for her son, currently enrolled in a private school in La Cañada. She chose to forgo camping out in line — she had heard of the practice through colleagues — figuring things would work out for the best.

“There is always next year,” Hayashi said.

Genske, the mother of four, said that with one child in college and two more in private school in Pasadena, securing a free, top-tiered La Cañada education for her youngest child is an appealing prospect. She, her husband and her sister took turns waiting on the cement walk outside the administrative offices on Cornishon Avenue, a team strategy employed by many of the hopeful families.

“It was a festive environment,” Genske said. “If we get in, it will be worth it.”

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