In Partnership with 74

LAUSD more than doubles new magnets this year, but teachers union calls for contract changes that would halt their growth

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | August 15, 2018

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King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science students. (Courtesy: King/Drew’s website)

*Updated Aug. 15

LA Unified kicked off the school year this week by more than doubling the number of new magnet schools and programs. But the mostly high-achieving school choice options have a new opponent: the teachers union.

LA Unified is locked in a contract dispute with United Teachers Los Angeles, which is calling for changes that would effectively halt magnets’ growth.

And magnets are expanding quickly as the district responds to parent and community demands for more of the themed schools and programs, which focus on specialized curriculum such as science and technology, medicine, or business. Some magnets, such as in performing or visual arts or for gifted students, have selective admission requirements.

On Tuesday, LA Unified opened 36 new magnets, including University Pathways Medical Magnet Academy in South Los Angeles, which will offer students the opportunity to graduate with a high school diploma and a two-year college associate’s degree. That brings to 124 the number created in the last five years. Last year, 14 new magnets opened.

Districtwide, 79,677 students attend 260 magnet schools and programs, making up over 12 percent of LA Unified’s total enrollment, including affiliated and independent charters.

Since the first six magnets schools opened in 1977, only 11 have been closed or scaled back: four because of under-enrollment or underperformance, two became independent charter schools, and the other five either merged with other magnet schools or became smaller programs, according to district data.

But UTLA wants to make it harder for district schools to convert to magnets and for the district to assign teachers who are qualified to teach the schools’ specialized curriculum, Najeeb Khoury, LA Unified’s director of Labor Relations, said in a letter late last month in response to UTLA’s final contract offer.  The union has listed magnets conversion and centers as an “issue of concern” on its website.

On Wednesday, Superintendent Austin Beutner met with Alex Caputo-Pearl, UTLA’s president, and followed up with a letter stating his commitment to reaching a deal with the union. “We must do everything possible to keep our schools open so our students don’t miss the opportunity to receive the best education possible,” Beutner wrote.

Magnets were not mentioned in Beutner’s letter, but they are one of the areas where the district and LA Unified “fundamentally disagree,” according to Khoury’s letter. “The district believes we should be able to make sure the right teachers are at the right schools. You continue to reject any effort to recognize highly effective teachers. Further, you want to effectively limit the number of new magnet schools and limit the district’s ability to select teachers with special skills or talents for new magnet schools.”

He added, “Parents place a high value on the availability of magnet schools for their children, which is demonstrated by a 35 percent increase in student enrollment in magnet schools over the last seven years. Student achievement in magnet schools is amongst the highest in LA Unified.”

When schools convert to magnet status, teachers must reapply for their jobs, and many magnets require specialized skills. But UTLA is insisting that all teachers be allowed to remain at schools that convert to magnets. UTLA has not responded to a request for comment.

The two sides are at an impasse over a number of issues, and next week, teachers will begin voting on whether to authorize a strike, which could come as soon as October. The biggest sticking points in the contract dispute are over the size of proposed teacher raises and how much money the cash-strapped district has and when it will run out.

“UTLA would like to make it hard if not impossible to open additional magnets,” Beutner said earlier this month during a welcome reception organized by Alliance for a Better Community, where he met with community and education advocates.

“Parents have told us overwhelmingly that’s a good place for their students. The highest student achievement throughout the district has been consistently seen in the magnet schools,” Beutner added. “We think we should add more magnets, not have less magnets.”

• Read more: EXCLUSIVE: For the first time, parents can now compare student achievement at all LAUSD magnets

Magnets have a strong reputation because students overall at LA Unified’s magnet programs have high academic achievement. They represent an option for parents looking for an alternative to their neighborhood schools, but the application process is complex and many parents are not able to navigate it without help.

That has presented a barrier, particularly for Latino families.

Latinos represent almost three-quarters of all students in LA Unified, but they make up a smaller percentage at magnets, about 62 percent, compared to 14 percent for white students, 12 percent for African Americans, and 8 percent for Asians. Since their start in 1977, magnets’ purpose has been to racially integrate schools, and some LAUSD magnets reserve 30 percent of their spots for white students, who make up just under 10 percent of students districtwide.

About 22 percent of LA Unified’s magnets are considered “desegregated,” a district spokeswoman said Wednesday, meaning they are racially balanced to reflect the district overall.

The district last year introduced a unified enrollment system that allows parents to apply to some of the district’s schools of choice in a single, online application. A record number of applications were received last year: more than 72,000.

But some parents find the process impossible to complete by themselves, even in their own language. Last year, parents reported they encountered technical glitches using the e-choices enrollment system that made the process “frustrating.”

• Read more: Exclusive: Even after taking out gifted magnets, LAUSD magnets outperform charter schools on state standardized tests

Then there’s the complicated lottery system based on points.

“I always knew my daughter deserved to go to a better school, so I asked, and other parents would tell me to send her to a magnet school, but every time I asked the school office for help, they would give me a paper application that I couldn’t read, and got discouraged time and time again, because I didn’t know how to fill it out, even the Spanish version,” Mariela Lepe told LA School Report last year during a parent roundtable organized by the parent advocacy group Parent Revolution.

Lepe was only able to complete her application through Parent Revolution’s Choice 4LA program that provides assistance to parents particularly in South and East LA to apply for LA Unified’s choice programs.

Once a magnet application is submitted, in paper or online, students are chosen through the lottery points system, and students with the most points have priority.

They earn four points for every year they apply to a magnet, and they can remain on the waiting list for up to three years, for a total of 12 points.

Students also receive four points if they live in a neighborhood where there are overcrowded schools, and another four points if they live in a predominantly Latino, black, or other non-white neighborhood. If the student has a sibling already attending the same magnet school, they get three points. Some parents apply to magnet schools they do not want their child to attend just so they can get more points by being on a waiting list.

LA Unified board Vice President Nick Melvoin said at a June meeting that the magnet application process needs to be simplified.

“It is convoluted. The whole points system needs to be simplified and be more parent-friendly,” Melvoin said.

LAUSD magnets at glance:

  • There are 260 magnet schools and programs in LA Unified for the 2018-19 school year.
  • 79,677 students are currently enrolled in magnets, representing 12 percent of LA Unified’s total enrollment.
  • 36 new magnets are opening for the 2018-19 school year.
  • 4 magnets have closed due to underperformance in 35 years.
  • Magnet enrollment has grown 35 percent in the last five years.
  • 54,000 applications for magnets were received by the district for this school year.
  • 34,463 magnet seats were available for the 2018-19 school year.
  • 1 in 2 on-time applicants received acceptances to a magnet school or program for this school year. For late applicants, their chances were 1 in 3.*This article has been updated with Beutner’s meeting Wednesday with and letter to Alex Caputo-Pearl.

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