Sunday, December 04, 2011


By Barbara Jones, Staff Writer, L.A. Daily News |

Millikan Middle School dance students perform for prospective students and their parents during a Nov. 1, 2011 tour of the school in Sherman Oaks. The school offers tours to showcase its perfoming arts magnet program. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

12/04/2011 07:33:24 AM PST  :: Thanks to a new online registration program and aggressive community outreach efforts, a record number of students are applying for Los Angeles Unified's magnet schools, long considered the "jewels" of the sprawling district.

With two weeks remaining before the Dec. 16 deadline, nearly 17,000 students have applied for about 20,000 vacant seats in the 172 magnet programs. That compares with about 2,500 applicants through Nov. 30 of last year, with online access credited for nearly all of the surge.

Despite the overwhelming demand for these inventive schools, however, supporters fear that looming cuts in state education and school- transportation funding could threaten the magnets' future. LAUSD could lose $113 million in

Prospective students and their parents look on as Millikan Middle School magnet coordinator Ali Miller discusses the program during a tour of the school in Sherman Oaks on Dec. 1, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

K-12 funding and $38.2 million designated for busing when the state budget ax falls on Dec. 15, potentially devastating some of the district's most critical programs.

"This could be the death of the magnets," said parent Jennifer King, who mobilized an outreach program last year when the district planned to eliminate the positions of the coordinators who oversee and operate the magnet programs at each of the campuses.

"We cannot function without magnet coordinators ... With a huge transportation cut, I don't know how (magnet) students will get to and from school.

"We cannot survive with more cuts."

Parents like King, whose son is enrolled in the highly gifted magnet at North Hollywood High, and Bonnie Goodman, whose son attends the humanities magnet at Cleveland High in Reseda, say it's critical that the public realizes what's at stake.

Hilary MacGregor, chief of staff to school board member Tamar Galatzan, has already met with magnet leaders and students at Cleveland and has a similar session set for Monday at North Hollywood.

"The magnet program is unique and breakthrough in terms of the way it has developed. I feel an obligation to make sure that other people know about it," Goodman said.

"We need the ability to continue to grow ... If we're not at capacity, we lose teachers and resources. We need the outreach to survive."

To help achieve those goals, district officials, educators and magnet advocates have been giving tours, staging performances and even hosting wine-and-cheese receptions to recruit more applicants for the wildly popular program.

"Because there are so many magnets, we want to get the word out to parents who are looking for the right fit for their child," said Phyllis Spadafora, who coordinates the highly gifted and biological sciences-zoo magnets at North Hollywood High School and spent much of last week giving tours of the programs.

"Because we can bring in students from anywhere in Los Angeles Unified, we are trying to encourage them to take advantage of every opportunity."

Spadafora was quick to point out, however, that the magnet program is, first and foremost, designed to provide a racial balance in the increasingly diverse district.

That means that many students sacrifice hours each day to ride buses from such far-flung communities as Venice, Gardena and Chatsworth for the chance to participate in programs that rival those of many private schools.

At Millikan Middle School in Sherman Oaks, nearly 750 youngsters applied last year for 149 vacant seats in its performing arts magnet.

Despite having only 137 seats available this year, school officials have

Millikan Middle School students sit at their desks and field questions from prospective students and their parents during a tour of the school in Sherman Oaks on Dec. 1, 2011. (Andy Holzman/Daily News Staff Photographer)

been working to get an even bigger response. Magnet coordinator Ali Miller visited campuses with the Traveling Turtles, a troupe of Millikan's young performers, and touted the school's magnet curriculum, honors program and 862 API score during weekly tours with parents.

"We are not a perfect school - but we're close," she told a crowd of more than 50 parents during a tour last week.

Millikan Principal John Plevack said he wants to attain the broadest roster of potential students since most will be winnowed out by a complicated points system designed to achieve a racial balance of minority and white students. And since parents can apply to only one magnet school, he wants to ensure that it's his.

"We want a well-rounded student who has an interest in the performing arts," Plevack said. "It's nice having the best students, but we're also interested in students with the most potential."

The magnets were created in the early 1980s, after a group of San Fernando Valley parents waged a bruising, years-long legal battle that halted court-ordered busing in Los Angeles' public schools.

Instead, the district complied with the court-ordered desegregation by creating a voluntary busing program that uses special academic programs - the magnets - to draw minority students and those from underserved communities.

Despite the core goal of integration, the academic innovation and success of magnets have made them a huge draw for students and parents of all races and parts of the district seeking a nontraditional education.

Karen Bender of Tarzana toured Millikan last week, where her son will be applying next year for sixth grade. Daughter Josie, a dancer, has thrived during her three years at Millikan, Bender said, and she wants the same experience for Josh.

"It's an awesome school," she said. "They deal with the whole person - academics, performance, ethics. They pay attention to it all."

Those kinds of comments are common among parents of magnet students. They rave about the enthusiastic teachers, the challenging curriculum, the unlimited opportunities extended to their children.

Goodman is behind the wine-and-cheese parties for prospective Cleveland High parents, where she explains the magnet program that made "citizens of the world" of her son and his older sister, who is now enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley.

"It taught them to think critically and to self-reflect," Goodman said. "They learned information and how to synthesize it and think it through in a critical way that they're smarter for it."

As united as advocates are in their support of magnets, they also are outspoken about the need to expand the programs.

King suggested that vacant seats on campuses shared by magnet and traditional students could be utilized for specialized program like NoHo's highly gifted magnet, the only high school in the district for students with IQs topping 145.

School board member Steve Zimmer said he is working on a resolution he hopes to introduce this month that would increase the number of magnet seats and more equitably distribute them across the 710-square-mile district.

"If there are 200 gifted-magnet seats in the Westside, there should be 200 gifted-magnet seats in South L.A.," said Zimmer, whose district straddles the Valley and West Los Angeles.

Superintendent John Deasy said he is committed to the magnets, and would like to shift money from less-successful programs to increase enrollment in the specialized programs.

"There's a reason these are called the jewels of the district," he said. "It's because they are."

Jennifer Macon is in her first year as coordinator of the humanities magnet at Cleveland High, where she's been a teacher for 13 years. She voiced the sentiment expressed by other magnet advocates about the infectious effects of the programs.

"The magnet teachers here love to learn and create lessons that impart that love," she said. "We've created a culture and community of learning that sweeps into the hallway and into all of the classrooms.

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