Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In Honor of Pay it Forward Day, I took a new mom out for coffee and filled her in on how to play the Magnet Game

As is the tradition with all reluctant public school moms in Los Angeles, we share information with each other about schools – turning each other on to great schools with open enrollment, charter schools, private schools, home school programs, work permits, how to sneak in to public schools in the better zip codes of the San Fernando Valley, and how to navigate the magnet school point system.

Magnet schools started over 30 years ago in response to the mandatory busing that was imposed on students to integrate racial populations and give kids from lower performing public schools a chance to get a better education by busing them to better schools. The magnets were created as an alternative to mandatory busing, as a voluntary integration program to promote desegregation.

The magnet school student bodies are based on racial quotas. The schools have to maintain a certain ratio of all races. The students are selected through a lottery system. Some magnets specialize in a specific academic area or are arts based. They tend to attract students who perform well in school (scoring better in English and Math), and have higher attendance and graduation rates, with very low drop out rates. This is due, in great part, to their parents placing a high value on education and seeking out these magnet schools. They are persistent and savvy enough to work through the complicated system. Generally, magnet schools have a great deal of parental support. They also attract new teaching methods, exceptional teachers (gifted schools offer extra training for their teachers), and special curriculums. They have safer campuses and are more racially diverse. There are 169 magnet schools and centers in Los Angeles. If you live outside of a two mile radius of a magnet elementary school, the school district will provide free transportation (three miles for middle and high schools).

The LAUSD established magnet schools in 1976 to help prevent racial isolation in the school system in order to comply with the California Supreme Court's order to voluntarily integrate. Some magnets are school wide, and some are a schools within existing schools, led by a magnet coordinator. Originally, magnets were designed to combat low academic achievement, low self-esteem, lack of access to college opportunities, interracial hostility and intolerance, and overcrowded schools.

Thirty years ago, the racial demographics of LAUSD were quite different, and the courts intervened to make education fairer for minority groups. Today, the demographics have changed dramatically. Only 9% of the student population in LAUSD is white. The demographics have changed, but the model has not. Names are still drawn in a lottery based on race. Parents still seek this alternative out, but not because they want to avoid forced busing, but because they want to escape their low performing neighborhood schools. Magnets have been the most attractive alternative to the average LAUSD school (charter schools are gaining in popularity now, too). The magnet system has gone from being a system that once promoted fairness amongst the races, to being an unfair public school alternative, privy to the savviest of parents. The racial demographics may be even and balanced, but the system is anything but fair. The only kids who attend magnet schools are kids who come from households that place a very high value on education. Parents who are unaware or uninvolved prevent hundreds of thousands of children from being able to take advantage of the magnet system.

Now, thirty years later, the United States Supreme Court has pondered whether magnets in other states are violating the Constitution by making enrollment decisions based on skin color. This could mean that LAUSD’s magnet program could be at risk. Those who don’t get in may one day fight the system as not being constitutional. Until then, it’s every Angeleno for himself. After spending two hours with my new mom friend, going over the Magnet Game, I set her loose with a checklist for the day (she took the day off from work to deal with this BS): first she was go to the highly gifted magnet middle school to inquire on their admission policies, then she was to walk in to a certain, really great elementary school in a very desirable part of the Valley to find out if she can enroll her two children on a work permit (she works two blocks from the school). After that, she walked in to another school near her work, just to make sure she covered all her bases, and then, based upon the plan that emerged from talking to these three schools directly, she bubbled in the proper magnet selections in her Choices brochure, slipped them in the mailbox, crossed her fingers, and said a prayer.