Tis the season: the Choices brochures have gone out and Los Angeles moms are confronted, as they are every year at this time, with whether or not they want to try and get their kids into a magnet school via the annual lottery system known as “Choices”.
My own experience with Magnet Mania started before my first child entered kindergarten thirteen years ago. On the advice of several of my mom friends with older kids, I was encouraged to apply to the only magnet school in the Valley that had a kindergarten, not because it’s a great school and I would want my son to go there, but because I would hope that he WOULDN’T get in. The neurotic strategy? The more parents who do it, the more we all increase our chances of our kids not getting in, giving them extra points each year that their names don’t get drawn. The points pile up over the years, giving your child an advantage when you want them to get into the magnet middle school you want, many years in the future. Every time you apply and don’t get in, you are awarded four more magnet points. The object of the game is to have as many points as possible when you go ahead and apply for middle school. Since our neighborhood school is a PHBAO (Predominantly Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Other Non-Anglo) school, that gives my kids an automatic four extra points, which means, if they don’t get their name drawn before I want them to, then they’ll be WAY AHEAD of the other kids when it comes time to try and get them into the school we really want. Confused? You should be. It is CONFUSING!
All of us savvy moms are hip to how all of this works, giving each other pointers on points, so we can keep playing this confusing game, most of us reluctantly, because it’s our only hope for escape – escape from the dreaded Los Angeles neighborhood middle school.
I was playing the magnet game, like I was instructed to, for four years, with my eye on the one school most of us savvy moms want our kids to go to – the one where your kid can attend school with the same kids from fourth to twelfth grade (which, by the way, is four blocks away from our house, but it is not open to any neighborhood kids, because it is an exclusive magnet school attracting kids from all over the Los Angeles area, many of whom get up at 4 a.m. to ride the bus for a couple of hours to get to that school.) I have talked about this insane system from time to time to my husband over the years, and he does what most men who have been married a long time do: fake interest and pretend to listen. So when the magnet school I hoped my son WOULD NOT get in to called a few days before the first day of third grade to say that a spot had opened up for him, my husband, who was the only one home at the time, exclaimed, “Great! My wife will be so happy!”, not knowing which magnet was which, accepting the spot. When I got home, he shared the good news. I was anything but happy. All of those years of playing the Magnet Mania Game. All of those accumulated points……wasted! If you don’t accept the open spot, you lose ALL of your points. And if you do accept the spot, but don't enroll, you still lose all of your points.
So when it came time for my second child to play the magnet game, I had two extra advantages: my own past experience, and my daughter's stellar test scores. That means she has a special folder with a prestigious label, with a guaranteed spot on the fast track, if we choose to put her on it. After two years of applying to the number one elementary magnet school in LAUSD, my daughter got in. Phew.
But she, and all of the other kids attending this outstanding school, would not have gotten in, were it not for the anxious efforts of their savvy moms. If your mom doesn’t play the game, you can’t get in. The first year I applied to this school, I had to drive all over the Valley to various public libraries during the winter break, to find a Choices brochure, because I never got one in the mail. I finally found one, but it was the Spanish version. That was a problem because I don’t speak Spanish. So I had to go figure out what it said so I could fill it out properly. What ethnicity should I check? She’s Chinese but my husband and I are Caucasian. Magnet Maniacs recommended “Caucasian” because fewer Caucasians are applying, and we could justify it because we’re Caucasian. Magnets need more white kids for their “Caucasian quotas.” Better not take any chances, I thought, so I checked Asian. I got it filled out and out into the mail by the deadline, without knowing Spanish. Pretty savvy of me.
The rejection letter came a couple of months later, in Spanish. I had it translated, to make sure it was a rejection letter, not an acceptance letter. I double checked the translation by calling downtown to talk to a live person at the Student Integration Services. I didn't want to take a chance on blowing it and losing any points, because of the language barrier. I also wanted to request that my daughter’s language status be changed to “English” so she would be in the correct data base. After dealing with the school district for 13 years, I have grown to expect a 50/50 success ratio when dealing with district employees, since accuracy, consistency and professionalism in LAUSD is anything but the norm. If you call downtown and ask three different people the same question, you’ll usually get three different answers. So I had to be ready. I even prepared myself for my daughter being known from now on as a Spanish speaking Caucasian from Cambodia. I’d have to wait a year to find out if they got it right, when the Choices brochure arrived in English (if ever.) It did. Another phew.
Miracle of miracles: my daughter ended up getting into the top elementary magnet school in LAUSD. There were 24 open spots and she got one of them. Phew again! It really is a great school. She’s a very, very lucky girl. I can relax about middle school! PHEW!!!!!
You see, many of us savvy LAUSD moms opt for magnets for elementary school because we’re really worried about middle school. That’s right - middle school. If you can get your kid into a magnet, any magnet, in elementary school, then chances are very, very good that she will get into a middle school magnet as well. Middle school is the scariest time for us L.A. moms. Savvy moms do not wait until fifth grade to decide what to do about sixth grade. They start freaking out before kindergarten.
Does all of this sound ridiculous, absurd and confusing? It is. But that’s LAUSD: ridiculous, absurd, and confusing. And unfair. May the best savvy mom win.