In the face of losing more than 100,000 students since 2000, Los Angeles Unified is turning to magnet schools as a strategy to slow enrollment decline and provide an alternative to independent charter schools, which have nearly doubled in number over the same period, to more than 260.
The effort is now underway with a plan to reduce the 45,000 names on the district’s magnet school waiting lists and to open more magnets in the years ahead. The district school board last month committed itself “to developing a portfolio of magnet programs that provide quality educational options for students and families,” according to a resolution that passed unanimously and without debate.
“The idea that magnets could be a strategy to me is almost, like, huh?” board President Steve Zimmer said in a recent interview, recounting the history of magnets in the United States. “But at some point, I took up the position that if we have 3,000 parents on waiting lists at one school, why not build in seats elsewhere for those parents.”
Currently, LA Unified has about 217 magnet schools along with magnet programs that operate within traditional schools. They came about as a result of a 1980 court ruling intended to help create integrated schools by stemming white flight from urban communities. They differ from traditional neighborhood schools in that their curricula is based around a specific subject, like science, the arts, even fire fighting. Open to students living anywhere in the district, they provide an alternative to parents who might otherwise enroll their children in independently run charter schools, which have been one of the three major causes of enrollment decline in the district, along with falling birth rates and families leaving Los Angeles.
Altogether, L.A. Unified has lost nearly $1 billion since 2000 in state and federal revenues, which are largely based on student attendance, according to an independent study of district finances reported to the board last fall. A new study presented to the board on Tuesday — commissioned by United Teachers Los Angeles, representing most teachers in the district — asserted that the district lost more than $508 million in student revenue to independent charters for the 2014-2015 school year alone. The board deferred a response to the report to a future meeting to give district staff time to examine the findings.
Community Magnet Charter School, an elementary school in west Los Angeles, has the biggest waiting list of any magnet in the district with 3,715 names. Community is what’s known as an “affiliated” charter in LA Unified, which means it is a semi-autonomous school with flexibility over many aspects of operations but is run by the district, not an outside charter organization.
Specializing in liberal arts with a focus on humanities, social policy and languages, an unusual curriculum for an elementary school, Community has attracted parents like Meisha Rainman, who every morning gets her 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter ready for the bus that picks them up in the Silver Lake section of Los Angeles and drops them about 15 miles away in Bel Air. On a good traffic day, a rarity, it’s a ride of about 45 minutes; same for the afternoon trip home. Their bus is one of nine that transport children to Community from across the city each day.
“They love it there,” Rainman said of her 4th- and 2nd-graders, explaining why the family puts up with twice-a-day schleps of such distance. “They’re getting a great education and a great experience.”
“Parents and students like choices,” said Los Angeles Unified board member Mónica Ratliff. “The more that LA Unified can offer parents and students district-run options that cater to student interests and needs, the better.”
Nationally, the number of magnet schools has been growing almost every year for more than a decade, to 3,254 in 33 states and the District of Columbia in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the most recent data from National Center for Education Statistics. The total does not include 15 states that do not identify magnet schools, as such, and two others that provided no information. California had the most, 546.
In L.A. Unified, every magnet school and program has a waiting list, led by Community and six other schools that have waiting lists with more than 1,000 names. With fears that large numbers of children on the lists might move into independent charters, the district is creating new magnets as fast as it can. Another 16 are scheduled to open in the 2016-2017 school year, to serve 5,800 students in schools focusing on such diverse subjects as robotics, entertainment and fire fighting.
And the board wants more.
“I don’t believe that any board member is satisfied with the district’s speed in creating and expanding magnets,” said board member Mónica Ratliff, sponsor of the resolution. “I think that lack of satisfaction is evident in the passage of our recent resolution which required action to address the backlog of magnet applications and support new applications.”
“Parents and students like choices,” she added. “The more that LA Unified can offer parents and students district-run options that cater to student interests and needs, the better.”
Given the reason magnets were created in the first place, as a remedy to racial segregation, Zimmer said he finds himself astonished that they would morph into part of the district’s campaign to fight falling enrollment, along with continuing efforts to improve traditional schools with innovative teaching programs and with pilot schools, which have autonomy over budgets, staffing and governance.
“But it’s not so easy,” he said, referring to the demonstration of support magnets need to win approval by the school board. A magnet application requires widespread support from community leaders where the magnet will operate, adequate space to house it, a sound curriculum based on the chosen theme and assurances that a suitable administration and faculty are available.
“A successful plan needs to be developed by the principal, teachers and, ideally, the community,” said Ratliff. “The principal has to want to lead the effort. Teachers must reapply for their jobs so if they are not interested in doing that, they’re probably not going to support the magnet proposal.”
Keith Abrahams, Executive Director of Student Integration Services for LA Unified, said his office received 20 applications for magnet schools last year and half were denied by the district.
“We work with schools on their development plans,” he said, referring to magnet schools. “But if they’re not ready, they’re not ready.”
Carla Cretaro, Community Magnet’s principal, said the waiting list for the school has grown larger in each of her five years as principal. She attributes the interest to the “beautiful diversity” of her 464 students, as she said in an interview, “a good balance between African-Americans, Asians, Latinos and whites.”
“That’s what parents notice first,” she added. “Diversity is the goal of all magnets, but that’s not necessarily the reality.”
She said she has no idea how long the waiting list will be in the fall. Each grade has three sections, which means she will only have slots available for 72 new kindergartners, plus however many openings arise through attrition in the other grades.
Zimmer said he’s hoping the district can accommodate more children in more magnets, but creating them, he insisted, can only be encouraged, not dictated, by board action — no matter how many students are leaving the district.
“We can’t create them magically,” he said. “They have to be teacher-driven, family-driven and have community energy behind it. They’re part of our enrollment growth folio, but not centrally driving it – even if the numbers make sense.”