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Magnet schools: The answer to LAUSD’s enrollment problem?

Craig Clough | March 15, 2016

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King:DrewLA Unified has so many different kinds of schools, it’s hard to keep them all straight. With such varied terms as affiliated charter, independent charter, magnet school, pilot school, continuation school, option school and others, it can be a challenge to understand what they are, what they offer and how they differ. 

This is the first part of an LA School Report series taking an in-depth look at the different categories of schools that exist within the massive LA Unified school district.

Today we examine magnets schools. 

(Read more about magnets and their expansion in our series, including profiles of Bravo and King/Drew medical magnets.)

(Read our series on affiliated charter schools.)

LA Unified’s former and current superintendents and several school board members have all recently made laudatory statements about the district’s magnet schools, touting their performance and highlighting their importance to the future of the district.

“If the word is not out, it needs to get out: Our magnet schools are tremendous,” Superintendent Michelle King said at a January school board committee meeting.

Why the urgency with the pro-magnet talk? What exactly are magnets anyway, and what makes them so great in the eyes of LA Unified’s leaders?

To help answer these questions, LA School Report visited two of the district’s top magnet schools and interviewed students, staff and Keith Abrahams, executive director of LA Unified’s Student Integration Services. (Look for coming profiles of Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet and King Drew Medical Magnet High of Medicine and Science.)

Perhaps the biggest reason for the increase in magnet chatter is the decade-long enrollment decline. District leaders see magnets as the best way to reverse it.

Numerous LA Unified officials started publicly touting magnets following the revelation in August of a plan by the Broad Foundation to expand charter schools in the district to include half of all its students within eight years. The news sent shockwaves through the district because of the significant financial threat to the district. Every time a student leaves a traditional district school for an independent charter, state and federal dollars leave too. LA Unified is facing giant budget deficits in the coming years because of the enrollment drain and other factors, including pension liabilities and recent increases in the size of the district staff.

The school board and the LA teachers union, UTLA, denounced the Broad plan as an attempt to bankrupt the district and wipe out the union. Then-Superintendent Ramon Cortines called it an “ill-advised” plan that could hurt not only education but the entire city.

Weeks after the Broad plan was revealed, Cortines released a report touting the performance of the district’s magnet schools compared to its independent charter schools on the statewide Smarter Balanced standardized tests. The magnet schools did better than the charters and the state average, Cortines pointed out.

“The performance of our magnets demonstrates how academic innovation can serve minority students and those from underserved communities who are seeking a nontraditional education,” Cortines wrote in a letter to the LA Unified school board.

Cortines’ pro-magnet statement was a direct response to the California Charter Schools Association, which had been calling attention to the fact that LA Unified’s charter schools had outperformed the traditional schools on the tests.

Cortines retired and was replaced in January by King, who continued calling attention to LA Unified’s magnets.

“The highest performing of the schools are our magnet schools, and they are outperforming charters. If we want to incubate what is working, we need to look at magnet schools,” she said at the January meeting of the board’s Committee of the Whole. The discussion had centered around the fact that magnets are not attracting as many federal dollars as charters.

At the same meeting, board member Monica Ratliff said, “We have some amazing magnet schools, maybe we need to do a better job at publicizing what a great job they are doing and replicate more of them.”


About 67,000 of LA Unified’s roughly 650,000 students currently attend the district’s 210 magnet schools or centers, which are specialized schools with a particular academic focus, ranging from the arts to math to science.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.11.15 AMIn comparison, more than 101,000 students are enrolled at 221 independent charters, which are privately operated but publicly funded schools.

Fifty-five percent of LA Unified’s magnet students met or exceeded the standards in the 2015 Smarter Balanced English Language Arts test, compared to only 33 percent for the district, 39 percent for charters and 44 percent for the state. Forty-four percent of magnet students met or exceeded the math standards, compared to 25 percent for the district, 28 percent for charters and 33 percent for the state.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 10.12.28 AMThere are some demographic differences that don’t make for an apples-to-apples comparison with charters. Fifty-one percent of the students at magnets qualify for free and reduced-price meals, compared with 83 percent at independent charters and 77 percent for the district overall. Magnets also have a higher percentage of white and Asian students than independent charters and the district overall. Statewide, as well as within the district, Asian and white students and students that are not from economically disadvantaged households scored significantly higher on the tests.

But there are plenty of magnets with higher levels of poverty than the district and state average that also have high-performing students. Two that LA School Report will be profiling, Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet and King Drew Medical Magnet High of Medicine and Science, have high levels of poverty — 82 percent and 89 percent, respectively — yet have distinguished themselves among the very top schools the district has to offer.

A recent district report showed that of the top five schools in projected “A though G” completion this year — a key series of courses required for graduation — all were magnets, including Bravo and King Drew.

Of course, “Not all magnet schools are successful,” Abrahams said, and converting a school into a magnet is far from a silver bullet solution. At Crenshaw High School, the district converted the perennially low-performing school into a STEM magnet in 2013 while reconstituting it and firing its entire staff. The school still struggles three years later, with test scores and projected graduation rates below the district averages.


Some magnets are full schools with their own campus, and some are a school-within-a-school. The magnets are open to all students living within the district, and it is typical that at least 50 percent of the student body of a magnet comes from outside the neighborhood — hence “magnet,” as it pulls students in from further away.

Acceptance at a magnet is based on a point system that includes consideration of race, as the magnets were originally created in the late 1970s and early ’80s to help integration efforts. There are other factors also, such as if the student’s home school is overcrowded.

In 1970, Judge Alfred Gitelson of Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that LA Unified operated segregated schools and ordered the district to integrate them. The ruling was upheld by the California Supreme Court in 1976, and in 1981 the district implemented a master plan to desegregate its schools, with magnets being a key component of the plan. LA Unified had already begun opening a few magnets as early as 1978. The concept of magnets first sprang up around the country in the 1960s as a way to promote desegregation, according to the Magnet Schools of America.

Cadets at Reseda High’s Police Academy Magnet. (Credit: LAUSD)

Cadets at Reseda High’s Police Academy Magnet. (Credit: LAUSD)

The person most credited with creating LA Unified’s magnets is the late Theodore Alexander, Abrahams said. Alexander, who died in 2004, worked for decades as a district administrator, co-authored the integration master plan and was the first head of the magnet program. The district even has a school named after him, the Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School.

“Ted Alexander was one of the unsung giants of this community,” Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, told the Los Angeles Times in 2004 after Alexander’s death. “He had an abiding faith in the ability of every child to succeed and a fierce determination to provide equal opportunity education for children of all races.”

Magnet schools are open to any student that lives within the district, and the district generally offers free busing to elementary students who live more than two miles from their magnet school and to high school students who live more than five miles from their school. Busing is not always guaranteed, but the district works to accommodate as many students as possible within its budget, Abrahams said.

In 1981, the district had a much different racial profile than it does today. Only 45.3 percent of the students were Latino, while today Latinos make up 74 percent. There have been significant shifts in other races as well, with the African American population falling from 23.3 percent in 1981 to 8.4 percent today, whites from 23.7 percent to 9.8 percent, and Asians from 7.3 percent to 6 percent.

Racial quotas are written into the guidelines for the enrollment policies of magnets, and most magnets are required to give 30 percent of their seats to white students (40 percent for some) and the rest to students of other races. However, with the number of white students having plummeted over the decades, many magnets often do not come anywhere close to achieving this balance due to not enough white students applying for the schools. For example, at King Drew, there were only nine white students out of 1,564 during the 2014-15 school year.

Despite the radical demographic shifts since 1981, the California Supreme Court ruling that helped create magnets has been upheld in court several times, and the district still operates under the ruling.


Magnets have grown steadily over the years. In 1981, the district had about 70 of them, while today there are 210 programs. Some magnet programs have four-digit waiting lists, Abrahams said, and over the past two years enrollment at magnet schools has grown by 7,000.

In 2014-15, the district had 34 full magnet schools and 41 magnet centers for gifted and talented students (GATE), which require certain academic criteria for entry. The district will be adding 14 new magnet programs for the 2016-17 school year, and there are plans for more new magnet programs beyond 2016-17, but they have yet to be voted on by the school board, Abrahams said.

There is now a magnet school for about every category of academic interest. Besides the medical magnets, there are ones dedicated to the arts, STEM, journalism, public service and business. There are also specialized magnets, like North Hollywood High’s Zoo Magnet, where students take classes at the Los Angeles Zoo, or the Reseda High Police Academy Magnet for students interested in a career in law enforcement. The district is even considering building a new magnet school in the San Fernando Valley for students with autism.


Why do magnet students do so well compared to their district peers? The reasons vary, Abrahams said.

“There are a lot of different levels to lead you to answering that question,” Abrahams said. “One can be the teachers, when they are hired, then they are committed to this kind of education. The students are interested in the particular theme, and when they are interested in that particular theme, then there is a good chance they are going to retain the information and grow academically. And then, the magnet office, we have high academic and emotional standards.”

Other districts and organizations around the country are taking notice of the success LA Unified’s magnets have achieved. For one, Daniel Jocz, a teacher at Downtown Magnets High School, is a finalist for the 2016 National Teacher of the Year award. Magnet Schools of America, an organization that advocates for over 4,000 magnets nationwide, has tapped LA Unified to host its 2017 national convention because it was impressed with the district’s magnets, Abrahams said. The organization also recently honored eight LAUSD magnets for their exceptional merit and innovation.

“Merit awards are given to our highest quality theme-based schools and programs. They are models of success and represent the best in public education,” Todd Mann, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, said in a statement. “It is a great way for our association to acknowledge the creativity, passion and dedication of so many people.”

Abrahams, who has been in his role for about a year and a half, said new efforts are underway to try and take what is working at the magnets and spread it around to the more traditional schools.

“On a macro level, we are just now starting that conversation,” Abrahams said. “We had a few years where there was no [standardized test] data, and now that we have proof, for lack of a better word, that magnets are successful, we can now assist other non-magnet schools. That’s kind of where we are right now, and that’s something I’ve wanted to do since I got into this position, because I saw great things happening at these schools. And now we are looking at how can we assist other non-magnet schools.”

As far as the suggestion by school board members, King and Cortines that magnets could help increase enrollment and draw students back into the district, Abrahams said that isn’t his concern.

“Whether LAUSD wants to use this as a strategy to increase enrollment, that’s them. What I am focused on is providing as many quality seats as possible for our students in Los Angeles,” Abrahams said.

*This story has been updated to reflect that the Dr. Theodore T. Alexander Science Center School is not a magnet school. 


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