If you live in the district, the right strategy could get your child into an excellent school.
When my oldest child was 3, the director of our Montessori preschool invited us, with all the other preschool parents, to a symposium she was offering on how to navigate the Los Angeles Unified School District system known as e-Choices.
I thought it was probably a little too soon to be worried about elementary school. My husband pointed out that we had nothing else going on that evening, and so we went, mostly because we enjoyed the other parents’ company and wanted to socialize a little more. It was one of the best parenting decisions we have ever made, and I am grateful almost every day that I was given the opportunity to understand how to navigate this system successfully.
Unless someone actually sits down and explains the system of e-Choices, magnet schools, wait list points, overcrowded points, sibling points and PHBAO, you will likely not ever grasp the full range of opportunities and obstacles that exist within LAUSD. And you absolutely need that knowledge if you live in the district and want to enroll your child in one of the many desirable magnet programs it offers.
I’m going to help you figure it out.
What Is a Magnet?
According to the LAUSD Choices Program website, magnet schools are “court-ordered voluntary integration opportunities available to students in grades K-12 living within the LAUSD boundaries.” Currently, there are 210 magnet programs in the district, to which all LAUSD students can apply.
The program was established in 1977 as a way to help desegregate schools and expand educational opportunities for students – especially those living in underserved parts of the city. Magnet programs – some of which are stand-alone and some of which are located within a larger school campus – all have district-mandated quotas that require them to give a certain percentage of spots to students of color.
I encourage you to visit the e-Choices website and research the programs available. Remember, these are public schools. There are arts magnets, science magnets, college prep magnets and even a zoo magnet that will give your student practical experience working with animals and a great understanding of the zoo as workplace. They tend to attract incredible teachers, and the parents who take the time to understand the system and get their children enrolled are the parents who are at that school with you. They are involved, focused, supportive and want the best for their child and their community.
The only way your child can attend an LAUSD magnet program is by collecting “priority points.” These points are assigned in a variety of ways to all prospective students, and while collecting them might seem straightforward, strategies for doing so can get complex. Parents who have all the right information and pay attention to deadlines and rules are definitely at an advantage.
Student Integration is the office in LAUSD that runs the e-Choices program, the program you use to apply to magnets. They are really nice, lovely people, and they are conversant in the magnet program, points, deadlines and the rules. But they will not be able to help you get into a magnet program, no matter what you say, so it is really important that you understand the rules and the protocol.
How Do You Get Points?
The first piece of information you will want to know is which school is your home school, and whether that school is considered overcrowded and/or PHBAO (Predominantly Hispanic, Black, Asian and Other Non-Anglo). You will receive four points for each of these designations. Your home school is the LAUSD school you would be assigned to if you sent your child to school the way most of us went to school when we were children. If you are sending your child to a charter school or a private school, that is not what LAUSD will consider your home school.
If your child has a sibling in the magnet program you are applying to, you will receive another three points, known as “sibling” points.
Four “wait list” points are awarded to your child each year they do not get into the magnet program you applied to, up to a total of 12 points.
The absolute, maximum points a child can have is 23. Here is how it breaks down:
12 Wait List
All points expire after three years.
A caveat here: there is still an element of random selection applied to all students, even after their points have been collected and assessed. The more points your child has, the likelier it is that they will get into the magnet school of your dreams, but it is not a guarantee. If you collect your points and work within the system, your child will most likely get into one of the magnet programs out there, but there is still no absolutely foolproof way to gain admittance.
Middle School Strategy
If you start collecting wait list points when your child is in kindergarten, it is likely, very likely, that they will get into the elementary magnet program you are applying to. This may be your plan. You may not love your current elementary school, and you may really want to go to Community Magnet (we wanted to). If that is the case, you should most definitely apply for those magnet wait list points immediately.
However, if you like your elementary school and are targeting a middle-school magnet instead, you don’t want to start collecting points until your child is in second grade. This means that you would fill out the e-Choices application while your child is in second grade for admission the following year.
But, wait. Why would you want to switch your child’s elementary school in third grade, especially if you and (more importantly) your child are happy? Here’s where it gets tricky.
All of the LAUSD elementary magnet programs – Open Magnet Charter School, Wonderland Avenue Elementary, Community Magnet Charter School, Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences – graduate attending students with 12 matriculation points. These matriculation points are only good for one year, and are intended to help those students get in to a magnet middle school. This means that all students who are not in magnet elementary programs need to stock up their full allotment of 12 wait list points to help them compete with those students who graduated from elementary magnet programs.
Those 12 wait list points are absolutely necessary for your child to gain entrance to a LAUSD middle-school magnet program. So parents trying to get their kids into a magnet middle school face a gamble. Wait until third grade to apply and you won’t be able to collect enough wait list points to be competitive for sixth grade. Apply in second grade and you can get the 12 points, but you also risk getting in to an elementary magnet and having to move your child away from an elementary school you like. Because if you get into a magnet program and decline to enroll your child, your points disappear and you have to start over.
Working the System
Here’s the secret: apply to the most popular magnet elementary school you can find, that you would be willing to move your child to. Another way to say that is: submit your e-Choices application for one of the magnet elementary schools that is almost impossible to get into. It is likely that you will be rejected, and then you will have those four magical wait list points for that particular year.
Before you pick a program to apply to, ask yourself two really important things. First, are you willing to move your child if he or she gets in? Second, is the program you are considering an elementary school that ends at fifth grade, or is it a “span” school that continues until eighth or 12th grade? If it is a span school, once you are in, you won’t receive points to matriculate to another magnet program in LAUSD, and will need to keep your child in that program until the last year designated for that program. If you get into a span school such as Valley Alternative Magnet School (a spectacularly great school for grades K-12), you will not be able to transfer to another magnet school using points.
All of this will engender endless conversations with your partner, your friends, your principals and even your neighbors about which school to apply to and which program and strategy is best for you.
I am very involved in the magnet school that my kids attend, and I am always in the parent center after the prospective parent tour to answer questions. Almost every single parent who comes into that room asks me how they can get their child into our school, and it is with true and deep regret that I have to let them know that it is too late. If they are there with a fourth grader and have never been taught about e-Choices or followed up on a conversation they overheard or were part of at their preschool, it is too late for their child to attend our school in sixth grade.
That is not to say that they can’t begin to collect points so that they can apply down the road. The reality is, though, that sixth grade at our school has an incoming class of 240 and eighth grade will have maybe 25 spots available. It would be hugely disappointing to me as a parent to know that if I had only been informed, I could have worked the system and helped get my child into an excellent school.
Two final pieces of advice: Don’t be put off by the extraordinarily complicated system, and do not miss the e-Choices deadline. Applications open October 4 and you will have approximately six weeks to submit your application online here or via regular mail. If you apply for one program and then change your mind, you can update your application. The only one that counts is the most recent one you have submitted. Good luck, and may the points be with you!
For a list of LAUSD magnet school tours see this comprehensive list by school.
Amy Kiehl is a local writer whose two children attend LAUSD magnet programs. She learned to navigate the e-Choices system when her children were small, and she now helps other parents.