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Making a school district work for you

Wondering how to use the system to get your child into a great school? Check out these insider tips from a parent advocate.

By Angel Zobel-Rodriguez

How do you get your child into a school both of you love? In the case of private schools, the admissions process is clearly stated in the applications. In districts with only neighborhood schools, enrolling can be as straightforward as heading down to the local district office or school and signing up.

But did you know that many school districts have options for parents seeking a better educational fit for their children?

My family lives in one of the largest urban school districts in the country. Like most districts, the Los Angeles Unified School District has some good schools and some not so good ones, but I've never had to settle for less than the best for my children.

What's my sercret to using the school system to my advantage? Every district is different, so it’s difficult to generalize. But in the past few years, volunteering as a parent advocate to help others find the right school, I’ve learned some essentials about school choice and how parents can make the best of it.

Magnet schools

These schools attract students from throughout the district, rather than base attendance on a boundary or zone. Some districts have specific criteria for magnet schools, and other districts (like mine) use the program to achieve racial integration. In my district, there aren't any requirements — you just apply during the application period, and students are awarded spots based on a fairly complicated points system intended to achieve racial balance. Using the magnet program, my son avoided overcrowded, year-round, low-scoring schools in our neighborhood.

Unlike many public schools, magnets usually have a theme such as performing arts, math/science, criminal justice, or international humanities. They still teach the same general curriculum — for instance, a math/science magnet still offers language arts and social studies — but embed the theme in the curriculum. An English class studying Romeo and Juliet at a multimedia high school might film and edit a scene from the play.

Magnets usually include transportation, but be aware that bus commute times can be much longer than driving yourself.

Enrolling outside your neighborhood or district

When our daughter came along, we chose a neighborhood school — it just didn't happen to be in our neighborhood. Open-enrollment programs often use a simple lottery to award spaces to families outside the school district or neighborhood boundaries. This is a great way to get into a high-performing school, as many of these schools are in established neighborhoods where families have fewer young children, which leads to less overcrowding. The downside is that open-enrollment schools may not provide transportation. Still, a truly phenomenal school experience is worth a short commute. Schools want classrooms to be fully utilized in order to fill seats and avoid grade-level splits.

While neighboring districts may not have every program your district has, parents can ask about the following, which may increase the chances of their kids getting into the school of their choice:

Childcare permits

Some schools accept out of-district students when they use childcare within the district boundaries. Some schools make this even easier by having an on-site program such as a Y. The downside is that parents must often provide proof that both adults work full-time. Some providers even offer transportation to their facility, so contact the school you're interested in and ask what childcare options are available. In addition, some states require that schools accept students when their parents work within the attendance boundaries. So take advantage if you work in a district that is known for its awesome schools.

Public school choice (No Child Left Behind)

Families attending schools that don't make their annual progress goals two years in a row, per the No Child Left Behind Act, are eligible to transfer to a school that does. In my district, this also includes bus transportation.

Charter schools

Charters offer another option for public school choice. Typically they are run outside the local school district. Single schools may constitute a district unto themselves, or multiple charter schools may share a common governance such as the highly acclaimed KIPP schools. To find charter schools in your area, go to GreatSchools.org and search your city for them.

Final advice

Each of these programs has specific criteria and deadlines. Make sure you determine your child's eligibility, and file your paperwork on time.

If you can apply for more than one program, do it. After all, each application increases your odds of getting into the school of your choice.

Angel Zobel-Rodriguez is a parent advocate living in the San Fernando Valley.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

02/14/2012:
"How does any of this apply to an autistic child. Especially going to another school if the local one is nit properly staffed to help. Please email your comments to me. "
10/14/2010:
"This article misses a huge piece of the interdistrict transfer process. The home school needs to release the child from attendance before he/she can be accepted into a school of choice outside of the home district. It is not as easy as it is outlined here and takes a great deal of time and planning to ensure the interdistrict process falls in place. "
05/17/2010:
"I would like to know what to do when your child who has a IP been in chicago public highschool for three years has, and has no credits. I've attend every IEP meeting and nothing has help me help in to become a better students. He's now is giving up because in the meeting they stated he will have to repeat highschool all over again. We will be moving soon hopefully to glenwood IL. What should I do?"
05/10/2010:
"i'm looking for a virtual public charter school as you know these schools may be organized in one part of the state but serve the entire state, i.e. K12 headquaters in Simi Valley but serves most of the state. you need a way for a parent to search these options."
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