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.
Learn more on what to look for when touring schools in these videos:
Video: How to find a middle school
Video: A guide to private schools
By Brad Munson
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is one of the two largest in the country, serving a huge number of students and fighting continuing battles for economic survival and governance. But with great size comes great opportunity, and parents who are willing to make a serious commitment of time and energy will find some educational gold in this vast urban/suburban landscape.
Working the system, one choice at a time
Angel Zobel-Rodriguez wanted her daughter to have the best possible public education, and because she’d already worked through the LAUSD’s complicated menu of choices for her son – who is ten years older than her daughter – she knew it was possible. “Once you start researching the district," she says, "you’ll be amazed at all the different programs."
For her son, Zobel-Rodriguez used the district’s open-enrollment system first, then their neighborhood school, before finally settling on the magnet program. She used the same tools to find the right fit for her daughter, who’s now in fourth grade and has been happily at the same school since kindergarten. And there were other possibilities – like the district’s SAS (Schools for Advanced Studies) program and charter schools – that Zobel-Rodriguez didn’t need, but have worked well for many other parents.
Welcome to the big, BIG time
The LAUSD is almost unimaginably huge, with nearly 700,000 students, more than 45,000 teachers, a police force, and even a bus system that’s almost as big as the city of L.A.’s. (Search for "Los Angeles public schools" at GreatSchools and you'll get a listing of 2,072 schools; as for LAUSD proper, the district boasts a total of 868 public schools.) Composed of 11 districts, LAUSD encompasses all of metropolitan Los Angeles, as well as a number of adjacent and enclosed incorporated and unincorporated areas.
Fully 75% of its students are Hispanic, roughly 10% are African American, and another 10% are Caucasian. The schools themselves have an overall reputation that is nightmarish, but the individual schools are as varied in performance (as well as size, density, and safety) as the neighborhoods they inhabit. And, as usual, the district is in a constant state of change.
Its district-wide experiment with year-long schooling is being phased out, the struggle for leadership continues, a new superintendent has just arrived, and the district budget now exceeds $7 billion dollars, while threats of severe budget cuts from the state are looming.
So what is one little family to do?
Starting the search
First: take heart. There are more high-potential alternatives within the LAUSD than you might imagine, including:
- Neighborhood (or "home") schools
- Magnet schools (in two types: regular and gifted)
- Schools for Advanced Studies (SAS)
All of these can be accessed through an open enrollment process that comes around every spring. (Essentially, open enrollment allows families to apply to schools - other than their neighborhood school - that end up having available spaces. According to the district's web site, "Schools with designated available seats will accept applications during May. In schools where applications exceed space, a random drawing will be held in June." Go here for more information on LASUD's open enrollment process.)
Parents can apply to as many different schools as they like, though they are essentailly guaranteed entrance into their designated neighborhood school. Beyond the three choices to be found within the LAUSD, there is also a growing variety of Los Angeles charter schools – individual enterprises and parts of larger charter school franchises available in almost every community. (Check here for more information on Los Angeles charter schools.)
While it may prove daunting sorting out the options, you have many resources for finding the best school for your child. Go to GreatSchools to compare schools. View GreatSchools' school-specific ratings and parent reviews and GreatSchools' LAUSD Parents group . As well, check out the LAUSD's report card (SARC) for information on individual schools.