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LA Unified magnet schools in demand, but slow to expand

The day after parents get the letter saying their child qualifies as gifted, they often end up in Richard Ramos' office.

"Where should I send my child?" they'd ask Ramos, the principal of Haddon STEAM Academy, presuming the elementary school on a quiet street in Pacoima couldn't give their child what she needed.

"Keep them here," Ramos would urge them. Haddon has re-branded itself to reflect the pervasive focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math — or "STEAM" — the staff voted to adopt last spring, he'd tell them. The school has a robotics club, a mariachi band, speech and debate, he'd say.

"Oh," the parents would reply. "But this is not a magnet."

Los Angeles Unified's magnet programs — with their free busing across the city, attractive curriculum themes and often-strong test scores — have long been among the district's most highly-coveted schooling options. Though they began in 1977 as the heart of the district's court-ordered desegregation program, they've taken on even broader appeal; Superintendent Michelle King has called them "flagship programs" for LAUSD and says the schools will play a key role in her plan to combat shrinking enrollment.

But magnet applicants face long odds and long waitlists. Magnet programs received more than 44,000 applications for about 26,000 total available seats in the upcoming school year.* For years, the difficulty of getting a spot has prompted calls from district leaders — including, recently, King — to expand L.A. Unified's magnet programs.

And when Ramos decided to apply to start a magnet program at Haddon, he ran into the headwinds that make magnet expansion such a challenging endeavor: in part, a process designed to ensure schools aren't simply in it for the fancy "magnet" label; but also a process some school board members say is slowed by under-staffing in the district's central office.

Ramos figured a magnet would be a natural fit at Haddon. The school was already implementing the STEAM themed curriculum. Haddon's student body, which is nearly 100 percent Latino, is racially isolated and also overwhelmingly low-income.

But after Ramos contacted the Office of Student Integration Services to ask about submitting an application, someone emailed him back to say the school was one of 48 applying for a magnet program and that they weren't certain they could handle any more applications.

"At the end of that email, it was like, 'Good luck,'" the principal remembered. "And I wasn't okay with that because luck is not a strategy. We needed results."

Ramos contacted school board member Mónica Ratliff, who represents Pacoima and the East San Fernando Valley on the board. Her office looked into it.

"We were told that [the magnet office] didn't have the resources to go through that many applications, so they were basically sending people away," Ratliff said. "It seemed like it was about staff — they didn't have enough staff to support both going through the applications and, if the application is accepted, supporting the school."

Was the Office of Student Integration Services maxed out? "That's a difficult question to answer because there are a lot of moving parts," said Keith Abrahams, the office's executive director. He noted magnet applicants must adhere to timelines and his staff must simultaneously support existing magnet programs.

Either way, Ratliff authored a school board resolution, which board members passed in April, calling on Superintendent King to "immediately allocate the necessary human and financial resources to the Office of Student Integration Services for the purpose of addressing the backlog of applications." (Haddon's magnet bid did end up moving forward, and is on a list of applicants for programs that would start in 2018-19.)

As a result, the magnet office has requested additional staff, and in 2017-18 will ask for another $1 million to cover start-up costs for new magnets, said an L.A. Unified spokesperson.

Ratliff's call is nothing new. In 2012, a board resolution noted there were 20,000 students on L.A. Unified magnet waiting lists and bemoaned the lack of a "comprehensive outreach or promotion strategy for magnet, pilot, dual immersion," or other school choice options.

Four years later, the total number of students on magnet waiting lists in 2016-17 still approaches 16,000. That's down one-third from 2015-16, according to Abrahams, and he said it is his goal to "severely reduce" the numbers of students on that list. For board members who see expanding L.A. Unified's school choice programs as a key strategy, achieving that goal is important.

"What's materially at stake is the future of the district," said Ratliff, who will leave the board at the end of her term to run for L.A. City Council in 2017. "Ultimately, we have to stay fiscally solvent. In order to stay fiscally solvent, we need to make sure our enrollment stays up and actually — I would argue — even goes higher. We need to meet the needs of the public."

Students in Haddon STEAM Academy's mariachi band play during practice on June 3, 2016. The band meets as an elective class during the school day. Students play donated instruments and, during performances, wear authentic trajes (suits) valued at $300 apiece.
Kyle Stokes/KPCC
Students in Haddon STEAM Academy's mariachi band play during practice on June 3, 2016. The band meets as an elective class during the school day. Students play donated instruments and, during performances, wear authentic trajes (suits) valued at $300 apiece.

Another 8,000 seats in magnet programs will come online in 2016-17, Abrahams said.

"We’re interested in providing as many quality seats as possible, expanding current magnet programs, opening up new magnet programs," he said. "But we have to also make sure we’re opening up quality programs. This is why it takes months and months and months to establish a program."

Abrahams said applicants have to demonstrate that they'll have outreach plans in place to reach the diverse communities they'll need to meet desegregation goals, detail their plans to integrate their curricular theme and outline training plans for their staff.

Alan Warhaftig, an English teacher and co-coordinator of the visual arts magnet program at Fairfax High School, said the scrutiny is merited.

"There may be 50 applications, but God save us if they just simply approve 50 magnets. That would be chaos, I would think," he said.

For instance, Warhaftig said the district must consider geography and ensure it doesn't green-light too many similar magnet applications in a single neighborhood, particularly if they follow similar curricular themes.

Most of the capacity in L.A.'s magnet programs has been somewhat more concentrated on the westside of Los Angeles and in the West San Fernando Valley, according to data the magnet office provided to Ratliff. Additionally, there are more magnet seats in the high school grades (27,164) than in the middle (21,509) or elementary school grades (18,255).

"The district has to look and see where could you most likely put new magnets that would be in demand, be successful, and also not detract from the normal flows to the existing magnets," Warhaftig said.

But at their core, L.A. Unified's magnet programs are designed to desegregate the district.

"In a big way, desegregation is about intentionality … and that was built into the historical idea of magnets," said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.

She said national research that shows magnet programs centered around the idea of racial integration — particularly federally-funded magnets that are required to submit desegregation plans — are often able to meet their racial balance goals.

But if magnets lose focus on racial integration, that has the potential to be problematic.

"We just have so much research from around the world at this point that [school] choice, without any civil rights consideration, leads to more stratification, because the people with the most information are going to navigate the choice leaving the rest of the families in a re-segregated system," Siegel-Hawley said.

In L.A. Unified, around 57 percent of the district's magnet school students are Latino and around 16 percent are white. In the district overall, 74 percent of students are Latino and just under 10 percent are white.

Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, an L.A. Unified parent who runs a blog helping other parents navigate the district's choice process, said perhaps expanding district choice programs isn't necessary. She feels as though LAUSD could more effectively market the school choice options that already exist.

"I would love to be put out of a job," she said. "I feel like all [district officials] need to do is create a better way of sharing what some of these programs are. There are plenty of people who don't know that Haddon is right here, or some other schools that are doing great."

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of open magnet seats in L.A. Unified. The district received more than 44,000 applications for around 26,000 open seats; not 8,700, which is a more current figure for the number of seats that were unfilled in May, according to a district spokesperson.