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Navigating the system: Los Angeles

Live in or around Los Angeles? We did the homework to help parents make informed choices about the area's schools.

By Angel Zobel-Rodriguez

As the nation’s second largest district, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is called a lot of things — “too big” or “bureaucratic” or “cumbersome.” Some parents even use names not printable on a family website. But along with LAUSD’s size comes perks that smaller districts can rarely match, including schools that offer innovative programs and the flexibility that allows students from one neighborhood to attend a school in another. With over 1,100 schools serving over 660,000 students throughout the city of Los Angeles and surrounding communities, LAUSD offers many education options.

Before you and your family get involved in a time-consuming, and often stressful, school search, it’s smart to check out your neighborhood school first. Unlike some other metropolitan areas, Los Angeles zones every student for a school relatively near his or her home. Checking out the neighborhood school will also provide a baseline by which to compare other options. The best-case scenario? You and your child love your neighborhood school, and you can enjoy the rest of your spring and summer without deadlines and waitlists. Another plus: everything from school functions to play dates are easier when you live within blocks of your child’s school.

Location, location, location

Still, you may find that your neighborhood school is not a good match for your child. Even if a school works for one child, there’s no guarantee it will work for a second, or a third. L.A. mom Paula Kupiec, for example, has three children attending three separate LAUSD schools. “It would be lovely to have one amazing school where each of my children receives the education they need in a way that suits them. But that school doesn't exist. Finding the right fit for each of them just turned into three different schools. This was never my plan, but it has worked out beautifully for my children. And I figured out a route that avoids traffic so I don't lose my mind every single morning! In L.A., that is an accomplishment.”

As Kupiec makes clear, transportation is an important consideration for Los Angeles families. Los Angeles is a car-based city, and public transportation is spotty in many areas. Right now, the state allows children in elementary school to walk up to two miles to school, and middle and high schoolers are allowed to walk five miles before transportation is mandated by the state. So if your child attends a school outside your neighborhood, you’re likely to face a morning rush and an end-of-day scramble to drop off and fetch your little darlings.

Whether your child ultimately attends your neighborhood school or goes further afield, it will serve you well to spend some time considering all your education options.

A selection of popular public school programs: 

Magnets (themed magnets and gifted magnets)

The magnet program is a desegregation program, created because court-ordered bussing was not well-received in the 1970s. Rather than force parents to ship their kids across the district to achieve racial balance, the school district aims to “attract” families by offering popular themed programs at its magnet schools. There are 173 different programs, including law and law enforcement, STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), arts curriculum, social justice, and many more. Parents can find an elementary school with ties to NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Vintage Math/Science/Technology magnet. High school students might be interested in the zoo magnet at North Hollywood High School which allows students to spend part of their day at the Los Angeles Zoo, or a music magnet at Hamilton High School, where students perform everything from jazz to musical theater.

Magnet students are chosen by lottery, which is based on a complex point system that helps diversify racially imbalanced schools and relieves overcrowding. Unlike magnet programs in many other districts, there is no testing, grade requirements, or aptitude requirements for the school’s special area of study. While it’s important to choose a magnet theme that interests your child, regular courses are also required, so there’s no getting out of math by attending a performing arts magnet!

Unlike the themed magnet schools, students must qualify to attend one of LAUSD’s gifted magnet schools. To attend, students are required to already have GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) identification or obtain a (current) teacher’s recommendation. Warning: Talk to a teacher before applying. If child doesn’t meet the criteria, the application will be rejected.

Magnet applications can be found on LAUSD’s e-Choices website or paper applications can be picked up at local school offices or public libraries. Magnet applications are accepted from mid-October through mid-November; decisions are mailed in April.

Open enrollment

In April or May, schools that have additional classroom seats (than the original projected enrollment) announce the number of spaces available for the upcoming year on the news and on the LAUSD website. Families can apply to as many schools as they wish. One drawback to open enrollment: no transportation is provided. The open enrollment program is run by LAUSD’s School Management Office at (213) 241-8044. Applications can be picked up at individual schools and lotteries are held at each school. Letters will be mailed out late May or early June.

Schools for Advanced Studies (SAS)

SAS programs are similar to gifted magnet programs but are located on various school campuses. SAS programs started when demand for gifted magnets far exceeded available spaces. Parents who couldn’t get their kids into the gifted magnets began to create self-contained gifted programs at their local schools. SAS programs are essentially schools within schools, and are offered at 160 plus schools throughout the district. No transportation is provided for the SAS programs, but the advantage is that are many SAS programs at the elementary, junior, and senior high school level throughout the district.

GATE-identified students are automatically accepted into their home school’s SAS program, and additional spots go by application to those outside the neighborhood. SAS is one LAUSD program where it’s not luck of the draw. Your student has to qualify in terms of grades and test scores, but it’s also first come, first serve, so be sure to get your application in early. To learn which schools offer SAS programs and to print the application, visit the program options page. The application period is the month of April, with decisions mailed out in early May.

Angel Zobel-Rodriguez is a veteran parent of several school choice programs and contributes to the Ask a Magnet Yenta website.

Comments from readers

"I am a LAUSD parent and I wish the Open Enrollment really existed. These days there are only permit available.You can apply to another school but you only get a permit if you are working or going to school full time(childcare/working permit)and the good schools always have so many application that they hold a lottery so it's really hard to get in. Also, because is a childcare permit you must sign your child up in the afternoon program full time and the price is around 400 dollar a month."
"I am a LAUSD parent and I think your percentage numbers of the student body of LAUSD are not from 2009. Can you please verify that?"
"Don't forget that LAUSD has dual language programs in Spanish, Chinese and Korean too in all levels. These are great programs and can be permited into for all in LAUSD students whose home school does not offer these programs."
"One important fact about LAUSD high schools and their special programs, (magnet, Gifted magnet, School for advanced Studies, etc. ) is that these are just specific classes within the regular high schools. Your student will still be attending the school as a whole as far as lunches, after school sports, clubs, etc. ) These are not schools that are entirely gifted students, etc. Remember when you are on the LAUSD website and you want to see how large the school is, you must add the 'magnet school' numbers to the regular school numbers, because they are all going to the same place every day."