Emotions are still in a heightened state more than a month after the Los Angeles Unified District School Board of Education voted to convert Westchester High School into a school-wide magnet.
Supporters, dissenters and those who do not fully comprehend what the change at the high school means attended a town hall meeting at Westchester Christian Church May 12 to offer their opinions on the board’s vote and what effect it would have on the complex dynamic of Westchester education.
The board’s April 12 vote will pave the way toward transforming the high school, which has registered higher academic scores and shown improvement in other areas recently, from a low-performing school into a place where families who live in the immediate area would consider sending their children, say advocates of the magnet conversion.
“This is a monumental day in the history of our school, and I am extraordinarily proud to have been a part of it,” Westchester High Robert Canosa-Carr wrote in an email the day after the board’s vote. “I want to recognize all of the people who worked to give our school this opportunity. These people are far too numerous to name here, but please know that I am thankful to have you as a part of our school and our community.”
Carr brought the idea to then- LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines last year to turn the school into what he calls a “high-performing college preparatory high school.”
The proposed new name of the school is Westchester Enriched Science Magnets and it will be comprised of three magnet programs: sports medicine and health, environmental sciences and natural science engineering, and the existing magnet.
An aerospace magnet already exists on campus.
Terry Marcellus, a Westchester High alumnus, agrees that the change to a school-wide magnet was the best option to keep the current students as well as to bolster the high school’s declining enrollment. He also believes it will make his alma mater a high-achieving institution.
“Tradition is quite near and dear to me,” Marcellus said, recalling the days of his alma mater as a place where students excelled. “The reality is that the school is doomed, and this is the best option that we have.”
A magnet is a program in a public school that usually focuses on a special area of study, such as science, the performing arts, or career education, according to the California Department of Education.
Admission into magnet schools is typically based on a points system – although in some cases a lottery is used – and they are open to students citywide. Marion Hoag, a former counselor at the high school, mistakenly thought that students who live in Playa del Rey and Westchester would receive additional points, but was quickly corrected.
Students from all over the city can apply to the new magnets, which has some members of the local community concerned that students who are still in elementary school might not have the opportunity to attend the magnet program in the future if it becomes popular.
Westchester-Playa Education Foundation President Kelly Kane has serious doubts about the plan, citing the lack of a community school as a detriment not only to a potential loss in property values but also to the students who do not get accepted into the three magnets.
“I believe that if we allow Westchester High School to close, we will be closing the doors on our community school,” Kane asserted. “By turning the keys over to the Office of Integration (the LAUSD department that supervises magnet programs), we will no longer have any say (in how the school can be improved).”
The majority of parents of former and current students at the town hall appeared to endorse the idea that a school-wide magnet would be the best way to ensure that the high school becomes an institute that best educates all of its students. But one young woman who attended Westchester High voiced her concern about those who have not had the benefits of advanced placement classes in a magnet setting.
“I’m concerned about students who are not in the three magnet programs. What is going to happen to them?” Faneza Mohamed, a 1993 graduate who graduated from UCLA, asked. “No one fought for them when I was (at the high school). Who is going to fight for them now?”
There have also been concerns raised about the demographics of the school. Some African-American families from View Park, which is included in Westchester High’s boundary, were worried that the changes would deprive their children of an opportunity to attend the new magnets.
LAUSD Board Member Steve Zimmer, who represents Westchester, and district officials have insisted that the demographics of the school would not be altered and the students who currently attend the high school will not be excluded.
“Any plan that I would get behind would have to include students in the current Westchester boundary,” the school board member told The Argonaut a week before the April vote. “I would never support a plan that implicitly or otherwise indirectly sought to change the demographics of Westchester High.”
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, in a letter to the school board dated April 6, stated that any student who is currently attending the community school will have the opportunity to get into the new magnets.
“In addition, in light of the lateness of this magnet conversion proposal, and because the district has already made commitments to those students who attend Westchester’s feeder middle schools, students attending these feeder middle schools will also have an opportunity to apply and enroll at Westchester,” Deasy wrote.
All students who wish to attend the magnet program will be required to complete a Choices application, said LAUSD spokeswoman Susan Cox.
Under the plan announced by the board, the magnets will be comprised of 70 percent non-Caucasian students and 30 percent white pupils.
Zimmer reiterated his position regarding current pupils not being excluded from applying to the three magnets for the 2011-12 academic year. “I am fully committed to the student matriculation patterns to Westchester High School being maintained,” he said.
Kane and others who are worried about the loss of the community school, which has existed for over 60 years, take issue with how the conversion was handled. Many did not learn of the plan until less than a week before the vote, which was tabled when Zimmer wanted to get more clarification about the details of the proposed magnet.
Kane is also upset at what she said was a “sense of entitlement” on the part of some of the parents at the town hall who expressed their happiness with the magnet and seemed assured that all students who applied would get in, although the district has offered no one any guarantees.
“Just because some of them have their children there now does not mean that they should feel entitled,” she asserted. “It is not their school to give away, because the school does not belong to them. It belongs to all of us.”
Marcellus, who like Kane and others hoped that an autonomy movement from LAUSD would have allowed Westchester schools the opportunity to chart their own academic paths three years ago, would like to see consideration given to students from the school boundary area who attended the local schools ahead of families who live locally but chose to enroll their children outside LAUSD.
“It’s about loyalty,” he explained.
Marcellus, a former education chair of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, would like Zimmer to consider awarding those families who have remained in Westchester schools additional points if they choose to apply to the magnets. He feels that families who live in Westchester or Playa del Rey and willingly chose to abandon the local schools should not be allowed to leap ahead of a students who are currently enrolled in Westchester schools.
“Families that have sent their kids to K-8 schools in Westchester deserve to have the highest priority,” Marcellus asserted.
“I’m not saying that (local families who sent their children outside the school district) should be excluded,” the Westchester High alumnus added. “But I believe that loyalty should be rewarded.”
Zimmer said that plan would likely not be feasible, because it would likely necessitate changes to other magnet programs.
The school board member also dispelled the rumor that the district is downsizing magnet programs and the new magnet could disappear within a few years. “That is not true,” Zimmer said. “Some of the magnet coordinators have been eliminated, but a coordinator will not be needed at the new Westchester High magnets.”
At the end of the meeting Kane called for the formation of a task force that would analyze all proposals to best determine the education needs and solutions for the Westchester community – the latest signal that some members of the community are not giving up the fight.