Mixed Results for L.A.’s Magnet Schools

Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, Jan. 20, 2006

By day’s end, the parents of more than 60,000 children will have made their pitch to get into a magnet school, and Los Angeles Unified School District officials will begin sorting the requests by interest, by grade and, most important, by race.

Only one in four students will be accepted. Others will be left wondering if they have been unfairly left on the sidelines by a 30-year-old process created for a district that no longer exists.

The schools were supposed to be magnets for educational excellence, attracting motivated students to integrated campuses outside of their neighborhoods.

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But as a tool for integration today, most magnets fail. Eighty-seven of the district’s 162 magnets are virtually all black or Latino, and almost all of those considered integrated—those with 30% white students—are in or near the San Fernando Valley or the Westside.

As the new head of the district’s magnet program, Sharon Curry knows that magnets were intended to integrate schools.

But as the former principal of a Mid-City magnet that she says tried and failed to attract middle-class whites, she also knows how difficult it can be to integrate a campus.

Five years ago, Curry helped remake Crescent Heights Elementary into a language arts magnet with a social justice bent. With a new curriculum and a hand-picked staff, Crescent Heights improved its test scores, became a California Distinguished School and last year generated six applications for every open slot.

Yet the school’s demographics haven’t budged. Despite the fact that it draws from a neighborhood where most of the residents are white, Crescent Heights has only three white children among its 350 students. Almost all the rest are black or Latino.

“We had a big campaign to get excellent teachers, our scores went up, people began taking a look at the school,” Curry recalled. “But white parents would come and see all these African American children and say, ‘I don’t want my child to be the only white child in the school.’ “

Her struggle illustrates both the promise and the problems of the magnet school system. Once a nationwide example of successful integration, the quota-driven magnet program may be on its way to becoming an anachronism.

Begun with four schools in 1976, the magnet network was part of a court-ordered desegregation plan that relied heavily on mandatory busing, which was bitterly opposed by many parents. When the busing program ended three years later, the magnet network rapidly expanded—fed by a stream of state and federal desegregation funds.

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