Monday, December 29, 2008

MAGNET SCHOOLS HAVE POWERFUL DRAW: Popularity of the alternative programs leads parents to make plans for their children at early ages.

By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | Daily Breeze/Daily News


28 Dec 2008 - Parents have analyzed test scores, toured campuses and narrowed down their options, and with the deadline just days away, all that's left is to file that application.

All this for kids who aren't even done with high school.

While December is the heart of college application season, some parents of students from preschool to high school are frantically searching for the perfect Los Angeles magnet school. Even those who are years away from grade school are caught up in the frenzy.

"I just want to do everything I can as a parent to give my son the best education," said Eagle Rock resident Rosawan Rusmeepongskul, whose son is 3.

Over the past 30 years, magnet schools have emerged as the "jewels" of the Los Angeles Unified School District, but getting a slot at the coveted sites includes a complicated point system and slim odds - only one in four kids who apply gets in.

Still, themed programs and a reputation for excellence in a district that continues to lag in state test scores makes LAUSD's magnet schools the only attractive public school option for some Southern California parents. This year, the district will open 11 magnet schools to keep up with demand.

Despite being called "insane" by some of her friends, Rusmeepongskul - like a growing number of parents - is starting to prepare for the magnet application process as early as pre-birth.

"I have had to tell pregnant mothers to breathe and remember that their children are not even born yet," said Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, a mother of two and blogger at the "Ask a Magnet Yenta" Web site (

"Unfortunately, magnet school applications attract the same kind of nervousness as college applications."

The stress usually comes after parents find out about the point system used by LAUSD to determine which students get the roughly 16,000 slots in the district's magnet program. Every year the district receives about 65,000 applications.

Points are doled out for specific criteria. Students who would be attending a PHBAO home school - a school that is predominantly Hispanic, Black, Asian or Other Non-Anglo - or an overcrowded school get four points.

"In the end it's about doing your homework and collecting points," Zobel-Rodriguez said.

Via e-mail and in public meetings, Zobel-Rodriguez, who got her oldest son into coveted magnet programs through high school, teaches parents how to trick the system.

She tells anxious parents about applying to schools they don't want to go to just to collect wait list points - up to 12 after three years.

"If you want to get your kid into a magnet middle school, you cannot wait until they are in the fifth grade or you'll be behind," she said.

Author, journalist and mother of two Sandra Tsing Loh, who launched the Ask a Magnet Yenta site, also started a program coined "Martinis and Magnets" a couple of years ago.

"I got sick of hearing people at cocktail parties talk about how horrible public schools were," Tsing Loh said.

"I wanted to yell out `Hey, there are some phenomenal public schools out there.' So I started these parties to tell parents about magnet schools and how to get in them."

While many parents see magnet schools as more rigorous and elite schools, the schools were actually launched in 1977 as a way to desegregate L.A. schools.

In 1976 the California Supreme Court decided that L.A.'s segregated landscape left many children with a public school experience prone to the "five harms of racial isolation": low academic achievement; interracial hostility and intolerance; lack of access to post-

secondary options; low self- esteem; and overcrowding.

LAUSD's magnet schools - the country's largest integration effort of its kind - became a voluntary option for children to be in a mixed environment where at least 60 percent of the students would be minority kids and 40 percent white. A court decision this month reaffirmed the district's right to use race in its magnet school process.

Some parents though, see magnets as a way to ensure their children will go to school with more children like them.

Tsing Loh said her decision to put her daughter in a magnet school came after learning that 95 percent of the kids at her home school did not know how to speak English and 85percent were on the free and reduced lunch program.

"I don't mind my daughter going to a mixed school but I didn't think it was fair for my daughter to have to learn Spanish to have kids play with her on the playground," she said.

Zobel-Rodriguez, who has opted out of magnet schooling for her second-grade daughter, reminded parents to not discard their home schools, or look at charter schools and open enrollment as alternatives.

"Plenty of people live in great neighborhoods and send their kids to great public schools," she said.

"And, hey, we all survived public school."

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