Commentary: Unified enrollment levels the playing field for high-need public schools
Guest contributor | June 14, 2016
By Mauro Bautista
Most of us who grew up in Los Angeles in the 20th century had limited choices as to which school we attended. Most attended the local public school as determined by a zone of residence. Some of us, like me, attended a magnet high school and a few others attended private high schools. The 21st century, however, is a great time to be a parent and student living within LAUSD boundaries because there is greater choice.
As the principal of a local LAUSD high school and as a parent of four children who attend LAUSD schools, I can identify with this opportunity of choice. Families in Los Angeles have access to more school options than ever, including zones of choice, magnets, charters, and open enrollment. However, each of these options has different requirements, applications, processes and timelines. This unnecessary complexity makes the process confusing for families and puts traditional public high schools at a great disadvantage.
I experience the negative impact of this fragmented system on traditional neighborhood schools like my school—Mendez High School. Mendez is part of a “Zone of Choice” where families in our neighborhood can choose between three different public high schools. Unfortunately, the Zone of Choice process comes after charters and magnets have concluded, putting us at a competitive disadvantage.
Zone of Choice schools, like Mendez, are not allowed to contact our families until April, and by that time many families have received acceptance letters from charters and magnets. At Mendez, we have debunked the myth that families will not leave the charter or magnet systems to return to traditional public high schools. We have been able to recruit numerous magnet and charter students. In fact, our enrollment has increased from 600 to 900 in part because we are recruiting students from such programs as Hollenbeck Magnet, Stevenson Magnet, and KIPP Charter. However, it is an uphill battle for traditional public high schools to engage families so late in the year, especially if they have already been accepted to charters and magnets.
Together with parents, teachers and other principals who are part of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, we’ve been speaking up for years about how the system needs to change. To the district’s credit, LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King recently endorsed a high-level plan to create a common enrollment system. The district recognizes the need for a better system that will position district schools to compete in this environment of increased school choice. A common enrollment system will also help families who struggle to navigate the current complex system.
Recently the LA Times printed a story questioning how realistic LAUSD’s common enrollment plan is. It is true that there are still many unknowns about the district’s plan, including the timeline, the funding and what a new system will look like. These are questions that the district needs to answer in time for the June 21 LAUSD board meeting, when next year’s budget will be approved.
Nonetheless, I hope there is no ambiguity about the need for the system to change. It is critical for LAUSD to reform how it handles enrollment and school choice for the families of Los Angeles.
Mauro Bautista is principal of Mendez High School.