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 wait lists. 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.

Child care permits

If both parents work full-time and child care is a necessity, families can request a school that provides child care (before- and after-school care) by applying for a child care permit. Some schools have on-site after-school programs run by outside nonprofit organizations, like the YMCA. No transportation is provided by the school district, but in some cases the child care provider will provide transportation to and from the school. Child care permits must be renewed annually and there are a limited number of slots available. Schools that provide child care have lotteries for space available in May or June, with applications available at the individual schools.

Charter schools (independent and affiliated)

Independent charters are public schools with rigorous and innovative standards-based curriculum authorized by LAUSD and approved by the state of California. Different charters operate in different ways, and don’t follow the same requirements that public schools have to meet. Transportation is not provided. Here’s a list of all the charter schools in L.A. county. Application, procedures, dates, and deadlines vary, so check individual schools websites for details.

Patty Crost Glueck’s daughter attends Granada Hills Charter High School’s Virtual Program after years at various magnet schools. The program allows her teen, who has severe allergies, to work at her own pace and still participate in extracurricular activities on campus. “The band teacher is great, and my daughter likes the idea of having control over her school day after band is over,” says Glueck.

Affiliated charters are essentially hybrid charter schools — a unique LAUSD creation. Affiliated charters are district public schools with budgetary autonomy. Students outside zoned boundaries can attend, pending on space available. Check individual school websites for details, but expect to apply in the spring.

Permits with Transportation (PWT)

Permits with Transportation (PWT) essentially allow students to attend schools outside their immediate area. Students who receive a PWT aren’t given a choice of which school they will be attending, but they will be provided a bus if they are outside the mileage limits (currently 2 or 5 miles). Families interested in the PWT program fill out an e-Choices application. Applicants can choose to apply to both PWT and the magnet program via the same application. Siblings can attend the same school if space is available. Applications coincide with the magnet deadlines, so expect an fall autumn application in October or -November and a decision in early April.

No Child Left Behind (Public School Choice)

Federal No Child Left Behind laws mandate that if a particular school does not make the required adequate yearly progress, it is labeled as having “Program Improvement” (PI) status. If the school fails two years in a row to meet its improvement goals, the families in that school zone have the right to move their children to a different school. Find out more about eligibility at the LAUSD  e-Choices website. An added bonus: transportation is provided. Please note: to be eligible for this program, a student must currently be attending the PI school.

Span schools (K-6, K-8)

Parents worried about those difficult middle school years are finding an old idea new again. “Span schools,” or schools that include middle school grades as part of a larger elementary or high school, are popping up all over, thanks to recent school building programs and parental demand. Span schools typically have two or three classrooms of middle school students. They also provide a smaller environment for students who may have difficulty transitioning from a 300 to500 student elementary school to a 2,000 student middle school. The potential downsides of a small school include limited choices for level (honors or regular) classes and for teacher selection.

Span schools come in various configurations. The Porter Ranch Community School, for example, goes from kindergarten through 8th grade. Other span schools, like Delevan Drive Elementary, include K through 6 grades, giving students an additional year to prepare for middle school. Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES) goes from 4th through 12th grades, so once a student is accepted, parents don’t have to worry about changing schools again until college.

Private schools

Even with all the public schools available, some families opt for private school, and there are many wonderful options available, from the respected Harvard-Westlake to the two-campus, parochial Chaminade Prep.

Too much choice?

Overwhelmed by all the options? Nostalgic for the good old days, when kids could simply attend the school right down the street? The good news is that GreatSchools can offer help and perspective with ratings and parent reviews. Surf the Internet, talk to school administrators, and seek out veteran parents who’ve navigated the system before. Many schools now have Facebook pages and LAUSD has embraced advertising and promotion to help families find the right school for their children. The district supports choice, and promises that, “Every LAUSD student will have access to at least two high quality neighborhood schools.