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Choice Law Spurs L.A. Schools To Recruit Students

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Schools in Los Angeles are aggressively recruiting students to fill classrooms under a new California law requiring districts to set open-enrollment policies.

Parents began choosing schools and submitting applications last week, helped in part by local newspaper and television advertisements put together by schools to attract students.

Open enrollment has spurred individual schools to woo students because the state bases funding on a school's enrollment.

There are 22,000 open seats in Los Angeles, which is the nation's second-largest school district with more than 630,000 students.

While many schools in the sprawling district are overcrowded, and thus have no space for new students, schools in the San Fernando Valley and western areas have spaces available.

The number of open seats ranges from 600 in some San Fernando Valley high schools to less than 10 in some elementary schools. But even schools with only a few spots are actively seeking new students.

"We feel like we have the best drama and the best technology departments of any middle school in this district,'' said Ginger Dale, the assistant principal of Martin Luther King Middle School in Hollywood. "We're also a model bilingual program for the middle schools.''

Although the school has room for only 20 new students, Ms. Dale said, faculty members and students put together a short video highlighting the school's strengths, complete with "snappy music.''

The district's Public Broadcasting Service station, KCLS, has run 30-second public-service announcements for about 20 schools, said Marilynn Fong Choy, an instructional-television adviser at the district-owned station. In some cases, the station helped schools make their ads, but other schools had the technical capability to put them together.

About 350 of the district's 700 schools have at least some space for students, according to Joyce Peyton, the director of the district's office of school utilization.

The Marketing Challenge

The open-enrollment program, which could begin in Los Angeles schools with extended calendars as early as July, contains no provisions to pay for transportating students to new schools.

On the west side of the district and in the valley, where private schools are popular options, Ms. Peyton said, some students are likely to switch to public schools.

"We've had calls from parents about that,'' she said. "I think more what will happen is that parents will choose schools other than their neighborhood schools.''

Schools also are running ads in local newspapers, offering tours of the buildings, meeting with groups of parents, and getting in touch with preschools to let parents know about their programs.

One principal who has enthusiastically embraced the marketing challenge is Howard Lappin of Foshay Middle School. The school, in South Central Los Angeles, is seeking 150 elementary students for an ambitious reform program funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation.

"Most schools don't want to have anything to do with it, don't feel it's their responsibility, and think they should not be in that kind of competitive world,'' Mr. Lappin said. "But, sooner or later, if we didn't play ball, there wouldn't be any students left around.''

Foshay Middle School has placed ads in the Los Angeles Times and in community newspapers and made a video highlighting the school's technology resources.

"Technology is a big hook,'' the principal said. "People get excited about that, and then we can get them in and explain what we're doing.''

At Serrania Elementary School in the San Fernando Valley, teachers are accustomed to making the case for their school. Many families in the area use private schools, and, each year, the faculty members work hard to get out the message about their school, Marian Fortunati, the principal, said.

"We live and work in a community that has pretty much been into shopping for schools all along,'' she said.

Under open enrollment, the school has room for 45 new students. To attract them, the school made a video, sent out fliers, and asked parents of current students to tell their friends about the school.

Serrania Elementary's selling points, the principal said, are its science and computer labs and "terrific staff.'' The school is also making sure people know it is air conditioned.

Matter of Choice

The state law mandating that districts develop open-enrollment policies, which was passed last summer, was largely in response to Proposition 174, a voucher initiative that was defeated last fall.

School districts are required by July 1 to develop parental-choice policies to go into effect in the fall. Students in the home-attendance area of each school get first preference, and schools must use lotteries to admit students if there are more applicants than spaces. In addition, districts must maintain racial balances in their schools.

Another state law passed at the same time allows students to transfer between districts, provided that both districts agree. That law takes effect in 1995.

Meanwhile, the Chicago board of education last month approved an open-enrollment plan, to begin next fall, also aimed at schools with extra space. In Chicago, however, low-income students will be provided with transportation if needed.

Julia Koppich, the director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank at the University of California at Berkeley, said educators interested in choice will be closely watching Los Angeles's experience with open enrollment.

"The obvious questions are: Will this jeopardize the racial integration that exits?'' she said, and "Will schools develop programs that attract only bright and capable students and leave others behind?''

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