By Howard Blume | Los Angeles Times
December 10, 2009 -- The well-regarded Cleveland Humanities Magnet in Reseda is hardly a secret: On average, two students apply for every available spot. But even parent boosters don't precisely know how their magnet compares to others -- or to other schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
That's because the district does not publicly release the test scores of magnet programs. So a thorough comparison is virtually impossible, an especially frustrating obstacle for parents during this season, with the deadline for magnet applications one week away.
Yet the information is not secret, either: L.A. Unified has provided it on demand. And that data, for the first time, has now been collected and assembled into an interactive database and map by the Los Angeles Times. It is available online at www.latimes.com/magnetscores.
At the Cleveland magnet, 89% of students test as proficient or better in English language arts, and 66% are proficient or better in math. The only magnet school with better results in English is the North Hollywood highly gifted program, which is reserved for the top 0.1% of students. In math, the Cleveland magnet ranks third, behind North Hollywood and the Venice Foreign Language Magnet.
Magnet schools were set up to promote voluntary integration, and over time, the best have attracted some middle-class families who would not otherwise enroll in district schools. Another option for parents is independently operated charter schools, which have rapidly increased in number. Yet no charter's test scores are as high as the Cleveland magnet in math or English.
Cleveland's success results from talented students -- drawn by its reputation -- and talented teachers who've developed a winning formula, said magnet coordinator Gabriel Lemmon.
"Most students in high school go to separate classes where those classes are distinct entities," Lemmon said. "We eliminate those artificial distinctions."
An essay test every 10 weeks requires students to pull together potentially disparate elements such as art, history and religion.
"Many of these kids go to college and say they know how to write better than any of their peers do," said parent Bonnie Goodman.
Proficiency rates at Cleveland's regular school are less than half as high, but student poverty also is much higher in that population. Magnet students learn math outside the magnet, so their math success is a credit to the strong staff in the regular school, Goodman said.
A school apparently at the other end of the spectrum is the music magnet at Hillside Elementary in Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw, where proficiency rates are 37% in English and 50% in math. Hillside magnet students are below the statewide average but well above average when compared with similar high-poverty, minority populations. And their proficiency rates are more than twice as high as those of the host school.
Hillside magnet coordinator William Celestine explains that the host school, which has some of the state's lowest test scores, is a different entity with its own challenges.
His program is special, he said, because "We're one of the only elementary-level schools that offer one-on-one music instruction from a full-time music teacher who's received numerous awards and accolades."
"Our kids are motivated through the music," he said. "They have something to look forward to, something they enjoy."
The entire Hillside school now has the additional burden of facing a potential takeover: It's one of 12 low-performing district schools that L.A. Unified has opened up to bidding by groups inside and outside the district.
Celestine said the school will put forward its own reform proposal, one that includes making the entire campus more like the magnet.