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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.
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.
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?
First: take heart. There are more high-potential alternatives within the LAUSD than you might imagine, including:
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.
Start by identifying your LAUSD school of residence (or neighborhood school), by going to the LAUDS's school search selector. If you decide to enroll your child in your neighborhood school, register your child at the school itself, and bring proof of your child's age and proof of residence. For more information, call LAUSD at 213-241-4500.
If you don't want your neighborhood school and prefer another school in your district or out of your district, you can then opt for the open enrollment program. To attend a school outside your district, you'll need a permit. For more information on obtaining a permit to attend a school other than your school of residence, call 213- 765-2880.
For the coming school year (2012-2013), which begins August 15 and ends June 1, applicants must be five years of age on or before November 1 to be eligible for kindergarten. (For the school calendar year of 2013-2014, applicants must be five on October 1; the following year of 2014-2015, the cut-off date is September 1, which will remain the fixed cut-off date for kindergarten entry.) If your child doesn't yet qualify for elementary school, you can call 213-241-4713 for information on LAUSD's Early Ed and Head start programs.
Before coming to a decision to apply for open enrollment, every parent should begin the search with their neighborhood schools – and be prepared to be surprised. Angela Ortiz, single mother of Gabriel, was very concerned about her son’s education. They have lived in the middle-class, mid-town community of Eagle Rock all their lives, and he had built a solid educational base at a local K-8 charter school. But it was time to move on. The charter had no high school component, and private school wasn’t an option.
No 9-12 charter in the area looked acceptable, and Ortiz was starting to panic when a friend suggested she at least look at the local high school. “Which one?” she said. Her home was midway between two well-known schools that are prime examples of the wide range of quality (some would say “inconsistency”) in the LAUSD.
In one direction: a high school notorious for its drug busts, low test scores, and gang violence. In the opposite direction: a high school with some of the highest test scores in the state, National Merit semi-finalists, and a citation as one of Newsweek’s best high schools in the nation.
By pure good luck, Gaby’s neighborhood school was the "good" one, and he settled in without a hitch. He is now in his senior year, and has already been accepted to Cal State Los Angeles – “exactly where ‘we’ wanted to go,” Ortiz says.
Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, on the other hand, went through a much more complicated search, but she’s not surprised at Ortiz's success. “Start with the neighborhood school,” she says. “You never know. Some are excellent, and all too often parents just assume that the local school, because it’s part of the ‘normal’ LAUSD system, is dangerous or just plain bad. Not at all. Give it a fair shake first.”
Magnet schools have been part of the LAUSD for decades – the district’s response to the desegregation movement of the 1970s. Though the system is overly complex, each of the 173 magnet schools scattered throughout the district offers an integrated program and a focus on a specific area of study – humanities, match/science, technology – along with a standards-based education. There are no specific requirements or tests for entry, and all the schools are part of the open enrollment process. Best of all, bus transportation is available for most students who live more than two or three miles from the magnet campus – a rare accommodation in this day and age.
The competition to get into the magnet schools can be intense, and some years ago – as a reaction to that demand – a second tier of magnet schools for gifted students was created as well. This is far more than the standard GATE program, and only students with top-of-the-top test scores can qualify. That testing begins early, in the second and third grade. The best approach is to ask your elementary school teachers and staff how to qualify for the program.
The district’s magnet program has been a success, but even 173 separate schools couldn’t meet the demand of local parents. So they began to create yet another variation, the Schools for Advanced Studies (SAS), which function outside the official magnet system. This, too, is far more than a GATE program; SAS students are grouped together and challenged by some pretty demanding curriculum, and schools throughout the district, especially in the San Fernando Valley, are creating SAS programs all the time.
Generally, they are far more available than the gifted magnet schools but may offer a more intensified learning experience than a typical neighborhood school. Their biggest drawback: no bussing is available for these schools, so transportation can be an issue. (Go here to learn more information on the Schools for Advanced Studies.)
Finally, charter schools – each with its own unique philosophy, but all adhering to state standards and closely observed and measured by the district or other governmental chartering bodies – are very popular in the L.A. area as well. One recent study observed there are more charters in the LAUSD territory than any other district in the country.
Here, too, it can take some serious shopping around to find the right fit. Note that Angela Ortiz found great success with a local charter for her son from K-8, and plenty of other parents have found them to be a decent option as well. The district has set up a separate clearing-house of information on charters as well, available through California's Deparetment of Education web site, the LAUSD web site, or the Charter School Division at 213-241-2665.
It can take some time, and you may even have to take some chances, but in the end the available choices – neighborhood, SAS, or magnets – can provide many students and their families with a good fit.
"The thing is, you have to keep looking," says Zobel-Rodriguez. "Go to the open houses in November. Talk to teachers, other parents, friends, and neighbors. Use magnet time in December, and open enrollment in the spring to apply to multiple SAS schools, as well as your neighborhood school. If you get into more than one, you can always call and give up the space. But most important: don’t settle. There is a good match for your child out there. You just have to look."