Public School Choice in Los Angeles: Navigating LAUSD Charters, Magnets, & More

We all want great public schools for our kids, and today in Los Angeles there are more options than ever. So why is making the right choice so complicated? Perhaps because finding all the information you need in one place is so difficult! We're here to help. And rather than attempt to wrestle the enormous topic of public school choice into one article, the Mommy Poppins team is presenting a whole series of articles on public education in Los Angeles. Read on for an introduction to the basic public choices out there, and in coming weeks look for more in-depth information about charters, magnets, permits, and the daunting point system. We look forward to providing all of you who live within the borders of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) with a sense of how to take charge of your families' educational choices.

What is LAUSD?
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest school district in the country. It is governed by a seven-person elected Board of Education and a board-appointed superintendent. The administrative offices are housed downtown in a crumbling old building affectionately referred to as Beaudry, which is the name of the street where it casts its heavy shadow. Eight local district offices were created in an attempt to decentralize power, and each of those has an appointed superintendent and staff. Much criticism has been launched at LAUSD over the years for being top-heavy and for poor performance, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Public school choice, which has existed in various forms for decades, has been on the rise, as parents become more organized around their demands for great, varied public schools for all children.

Your LAUSD Neighborhood School

If you live in the city of LA or some neighboring cities, your children are zoned to go to a specific LAUSD school, which should be relatively close to your home. Most neighborhood schools have websites; all can be searched on the LAUSD website, and many hold open houses in the spring to introduce their programs, administrators, teachers, and families. Check them out. Attend a booster club meeting. Meet families who attend the school and hear what they have to say. If you get that warm fuzzy feeling that your local neighborhood school is a fit for your family, all you need to do is obtain an enrollment packet from the office, fill it out, and look forward to fall.

Advantages to staying at your local neighborhood school, beyond simplicity, include a feeling of community, having your children's schoolmates live nearby, and the ability to walk to school. Disadvantages can include being at the whim of the district's budget cuts and feeling that as a parent you have no say in hiring, curriculum development, or other decisions that impact your child. There are, however, many ways to be involved, from booster clubs to School Site Councils and other committees. Many LA families report feeling proud to be part of their LAUSD neighborhood school community, and studies consistently find that the greater the parent involvement, the better the school. 

What if I'm not happy?  What choice do I have?
For some families, the local neighborhood school is not the right fit. For too long, much as women were taught that biology was destiny, parents in LA considered geography to determine their destiny. If you lived in a neighborhood that had a "good" public school – which often translates to safe playgrounds, high test scores, competent teachers, and a welcoming atmosphere - you were fine. But if your local school was not ideal, either by those requirements or due to your family's desire for a more creative curriculum, a diversified academic program, or a different developmental model, or just because it didn't feel like the right fit, parents felt stuck. Could you afford a private school? Would you have to move? Now there are not only many more options, but the pursuit of those options has become easier and more convenient (though still complicated enough to require several articles and links to unfurl!). Most importantly, as parents partner with educators and politicians to create new options, school choice grows exponentially.

LAUSD Magnet Programs
The LAUSD magnet program was created in the 1970s as "court-ordered voluntary integration opportunities available to students in grades K-12, living within the LAUSD boundaries" (from the LAUSD website). What does this mean? In an attempt to address the disparities between public schools in wealthy and poor neighborhoods, LAUSD came up with an alternative to mandatory bussing. The goal was to empower parents to be able to choose a school in a different neighborhood that might better serve their child. There are approximately 172 Magnet programs currently within the LAUSD boundaries. These include diverse programs, from gifted magnets to performing arts, sports medicine, and technology magnets. A list is available on the Choices section of the LAUSD website.

Applications for magnet programs are due in December for the following September, through the Choices catalog. Each student can  apply to only one magnet program per year, and the magnet system is not a straight lottery. There are factors that add weight to a student's chances at acceptance, including the very mysterious "point system."

Charter Schools
You've probably heard the terms being bandied around in playground conversation: "charter school," "conversion," "start-up," "affiliated," "independent." What's it all mean? (Full disclosure: the author has been both a parent at an LAUSD neighborhood school and is currently a parent at an independent charter on the westside of L.A. In fact, she may be one of the parents bandying those terms around in a playground.)

First of all, charter schools are public schools. The official LAUSD website states that they view charter schools as "part of the District's family and as an asset from which we can learn." Charter schools are meant to be laboratories in which innovative practices and teaching models generate data that can help improve all public schools. In support of this important part of the public school spectrum, LAUSD has developed the Innovation and Charter Schools Division.

LAUSD recognizes two types of charter schools: "conversion" and "start-up." A "conversion" charter is an existing district school that later becomes a charter, usually spearheaded by a committee of parents and educators who decide they want greater autonomy over their school. A "start-up" is a charter school that is created "from scratch" by educators, parents, foundations, and other community members in order to provide a model that they feel did not exist within the current system.

Charter schools can also be either "affiliated" (with the district) or "independent" (see our independent charters article). The Palisades Charter School Foundation's page breaks down the differences clearly. Though similar, there are fundamental differences between affiliated and independent charters; most relevant to parents, the application process is different. Affiliated charters require submission of the LAUSD Choices application in December for September start (see magnets), while most independent charters hold their lotteries in spring. You can easily search for charter schools in your area on the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) website.

Parents can apply to more than one independent charter (as opposed to affiliated charters and magnets: the Choices application only allows a single choice). Most independent charters hold open houses for the upcoming school year. Applications generally have to be hand-delivered to an independent charter school by a mid-spring cut-off date. Each charter conducts a lottery, and families are notified of acceptance soon after. Consult the CCSA website, ask friends and neighbors about their experiences, attend an open house, and discover if this might be the right choice for your family.

What about ... gasp ... starting a charter?
Another option is to start a charter of your own, based on principles that a group of community members and educators believe in and around which you want to build a school. This is obviously a whole other topic, and a massive (and exciting) undertaking. For information about how to go begin the process, see the CCSA website.

And so much more...
The term "school choice" includes other options including pilot programs, work permits, and intra-district permits, all to be explored in our series, but the scope of this article is an introduction to the "big three" - neighborhood schools, magnet programs, and charters. Every child in Los Angeles (and everywhere) deserves access to a great public education. For further information about school choice, see Tanya Anton's website Go Mama Guide. From guidebooks to phone consultations to individual counseling sessions, Anton personally helps families navigate this system. After exploring the above links and continuing to follow the Mommy Poppins series of articles, you too will know more about public education than you ever thought possible. And soon you'll be the parent on the playground with all the answers.

Erika Higgins Ross is a mom, public school activist, marriage and family therapist, writer, and backyard chicken farmer who lives in Los Angeles (but proudly hails from New Jersey). She was recently selected by the California Charter Schools Association as California Charter Volunteer of the year.

Photo credit: US Department of Education via flickr

​Originally published March 12, 2012

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