A decade ago, when my daughter was in preschool, I spent many a sleepless night worried about her prospects for kindergarten. Private school was not an option, nor was moving to another school district. For better or worse, we were going to have to enroll her in a class within the dreaded Los Angeles Unified School District.Now, with ten years of experience as an LAUSD mom, I can smile at my younger self’s despair. My daughter is now in a public high school. She’s happy, well-adjusted and brings home good test scores and grades. Over the last ten years, she’s had mostly good teachers and a few who were excellent.
From the beginning, we took advantage of the District’s school choice options and other programs to up her odds of academic success.
Your Home School
You can glean quite a bit of information about your area’s schools on the district’s own website, which will allow you to search for schools by zip code, name or type of school.
You can see where they are located, who the principal is and school demographics. You can also select from a dropdown list of performance indicators, which read like a word jumble: SARC, API, AYP, STAR. This may serve as your introduction to educational acronyms. Note that there are many of them, and knowing what they stand for doesn’t necessarily translate into understanding what they mean.
SARC stands for School Accountability Report Card, and includes a summary of the other indicators available on the LAUSD site (Academic Performance Index, Adequate Yearly Progress, California Standards Tests, demographics, teacher credentials, facility ratings, etc.).
All of this information is great – if you know how to interpret it. And even if you do, statistics and test scores are just a tool. Nothing can replace actually visiting a school and talking to teachers, administrators and other parents.
You should keep in mind that a school’s API (Academic Performance Index) doesn’t tell the whole story. The API measures the test performance of the school’s entire population. The school may have a sub-population of honors students that consistently attains advanced level scores; you won’t see that statistic on the LAUSD website.
Another statistic you won’t see is a measure of parental involvement. For several years, LAUSD has been instituting campus Parent Centers; you should make a point of visiting yours and speaking with your school’s Parent Center Director. An active PTA/PTO or booster club is another indicator of high parental involvement.
There are also several websites that allow parents to post their own reviews and ratings of their schools (kind of a Yelp for education). One of the most popular is Great Schools:
Reading reviews on websites like Great Schools is not a replacement for actually visiting the school. It’s just another tool you can use to help make your own determination.
The state of California mandates that students in the District are eligible to apply to any other regular, grade-appropriate LAUSD public school with designated open enrollment seats. These are determined in the spring, with applications usually distributed in May.
Schools with high API scores tend to have more open enrollment applicants than lower-scoring schools – and fewer (or no) openings. Fortunately, there are other options.
Magnet Schools have specialized curricula (i.e., math, technology, performing arts) designed to attract students from all areas of the District. They were originally implemented in the 1970’s as a response to a government order to desegregate. They are technically still diversity programs and receive additional Federal funding, including transportation to students who live outside the school’s immediate neighborhood.
You may have heard that there is a complicated “points” system for enrollment in a magnet school. This is explained each year in the District’s Choices brochure and magnet application that is updated each Fall.
Even if you’re happy with your home school, it’s not a bad idea to start accruing points for your child, because you may need them for middle school or high school. There are dozens of magnets to choose from in all parts of the District – but note that the magnet application limits you to apply to just one per child per year.
This year, the Choices brochure is due to be distributed the second week of November, and at that time, the information will also be made available on the District website:
Schools For Advanced Studies (SAS)
You may have seen a banner affixed to your local school’s fence, announcing that it has a School for Advanced Studies program. LAUSD describes this as “an intensive academic articulated program in which both innovative and traditional courses are taught.”
For many parents, SAS is a kind of back door into their school of choice. SAS applications are made available in the spring – and unlike magnets, you can apply to more than one per year.
Information on SAS and application criteria can be found here
These publicly funded, independent school options are the heroes in the current hit documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” and they can indeed be exciting options for families who are frustrated with LAUSD’s Byzantine bureaucracy.
Parents should note that a charter school might not necessarily achieve higher scores than their local school – but that a charter’s individual program might be a better fit for their students.
Application periods at charters vary from school to school; you will have to contact each one individually to find out what those are. Do note that high performing charters will have more applicants than available spots and that you may find yourself participating in a lottery like the ones depicted in the “Superman” film.
Additionally, they’ve published a list of charters approved to open in the Fall of 2011