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4 lessons learned from parents navigating Los Angeles' school choice process

FILE - Parents watch as a charter school principal conducts a lottery to determine which of the 257 applications will receive one of the 28 open slots in the school's kindergarten class.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Parents watch as Valley Charter Elementary School's principal conducts a charter lottery to determine which of the 257 families who applied get one of the 28 open slots in the school's kindergarten for the 2016-17 year.

The odds are against most of the families who hope to enroll their kindergartener at Valley Charter Elementary next school year — the school in North Hills received 257 applications for just two-dozen spaces.

Blanca Villareal lined up in the school's courtyard on a sunny Friday afternoon to find out whether her daughter made it. Like any charter that receives more applications than it has available space, the North Hills school held a lottery to determine which students would get one of the 28 open slots.

Her lottery number? 29. Villareal's daughter is still on the outside looking in. But when she learned the news, she took it with good humor — after all, Villareal has options.

Parents in Los Angeles face an often-overwhelming array of choices for where to educate their children in a taxpayer-funded setting — from a charter school to an open-enrollment seat in a district-run school across town. Right now, thousands of parents are deciding whether to accept a placement in L.A. Unified magnet schools.

"The way that school choice works in most cities today — it's pretty much the wild west," said Joe Siedlecki of the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, which backs urban education initiatives.

Though most Los Angeles parents simply opt to send their kids to the district school to which they're assigned, Villareal is one of thousands of parents looking for something different. Three of them shared their stories with KPCC, which yielded four lessons on how to choose a school in L.A.:

Lesson No. 1: You won't always get your first choice

Applying to a charter school? The California Charter Schools Association has estimated that 53,200 students ended up on waitlists for charter schools across greater L.A.

Applying to an L.A. Unified magnet program? In 2013-14, roughly 39 percent of applicants received their first choice. In the district's Zones of Choice program, which lets seventh through 12th graders attend specialized middle and high schools, about 87 percent got into their first choice.

To hedge their bets, most parents apply to multiple schools.  A survey from the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) found 62 percent of parents in eight choice-rich cities considered at least two school options for their kids; more than two-thirds considered at least three options.

In her hunt for the right charter school, Villareal applied to four schools in total.

Lesson No. 2: Choosing a school is all about trade-offs

Villareal said she felt there was something good about all four charter schools to which she applied — "but they're all missing one element or another."

"I would like to see a bigger playground here with other than just sand," she said, looking at Valley Charter's recess area. "Another school was missing a music program. One of them didn't really have too much science in it."

Navigating the process of choosing a school is all about weighing the trade-offs between school options, said Ashley Jochim, the research analyst behind that CRPE parent survey. Think of it as "like buying a house."

"No school is going to offer everything that a family wants, so you're going to have to optimize," Jochim said.

Lesson No. 3: Be willing to travel

Jochim said research shows parents choose schools based on their quality and on their proximity. But some parents will go the distance to find the school they want — quite literally.

Angelica Moyes drives her 6-year-old son nearly 30 miles from their home in the San Gabriel Valley to L.A.'s Chinatown to attend a Mandarin dual language program.

"In traffic, [the drive] is more than an hour — Monday through Friday, every day," Moyes said. She said she wants to show her son where she grew up — a few miles away in Echo Park — and help him connect with her parents' immigrant background.

In the CRPE survey, 26 percent of all parents reported finding transportation was a barrier to making school choices. But that number was much higher among parents with a high school education or less: around 40 percent.

"Lower-income families are much less likely to have a high-quality school nearby," Jochim said. "So when you think about the trade-offs families make, lower-income families have harder trade-offs."

In other words, in order to exercise school choice, lower-income families may have no choice but to find transportation to another part of town.

Lesson No. 4: Check your facts

Even with government report cards and school rating websites, the American Enterprise Institute wrote "parents greatly value the opinions of other parents" — and those opinions can weigh heavily in their decisions.

That isn't always a good thing. Josie Vargas — whose daughter attends L.A. Leadership Academy, a charter school in Lincoln Heights — said she's had to do arm herself with facts to counter rumors she hears.

Among the things she's heard parents say: "Oh, you can't send your kid to a charter school because it's not accredited or it's not going to count for [their students] to go to college."

The Dell Foundation's Joe Siedlecki said policymakers need to do more to provide parents with quality information they need to choose the right schools — and they need to streamline the process for admissions at these schools.

Siedlecki advocates for creating common enrollment systems, which not only provide a single application for multiple choice schools within a district, but also a streamlined lottery process that can minimize the number of students on waitlists.

The current choice system, he said, is "really not simple for families to navigate."

"How much school choice is there," he asked, "if families don't have the capacity to understand those choices?"

Series: Good Schools

As part of its Good Schools series, Take Two looks at the education landscape in the Los Angeles area. That includes its public schools, magnets, charters, private institutions and dual-language programs. You’ll hear from parents, academics, teachers, kids and even a couple of TV show producers.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Facebook, or tweet us @Take Two and @KPCC with the hashtag #goodschools.