As many as 70,000 families apply for some 15,000 magnet-school openings; this year‘s application deadline was January 18. A winning draw can get your child into a high-achieving gem. Losers can get stuck in overcrowded, unattractive neighborhood schools with bottom-feeding test scores. Magnets were set up as a voluntary integration program — mainly to get white students into schools that had black students. These days, the middle- and upper-middle-class typically use magnets to escape less desirable, overcrowded neighborhood schools, an act that effectively removes them from campuses that would have integrated their children with children from poor and working-class families. It’s hardly desegregation, but the justification is that it‘s better to placate the middle class than have them desert the school system entirely.

Like many others, I’m hustling last-minute to fill out the form. My daughter will be entering kindergarten; eight schools have magnet programs for that grade level — not much choice in a district with 677 schools. Most of these eight seem too far from where I live. But what the heck, I start calling and dial the Mid-City Charter BusinessEntrepreneurism School. The woman who answers the phone says she‘s too busy to answer questions.

“But how are we supposed to find out about your school? This week is the deadline for turning in magnet applications.”

A pause. “What are your questions?”

I ask about how this magnet differs from a regular school.

“It doesn’t in kindergarten.”

“Well, when does it begin to get different?”

“Sixth grade.”

“So you enter the magnet as early as kindergarten, but nothing different happens till the sixth grade.” a“That‘s right.”

“What happens in the sixth grade?”

“We’re a business and entrepreneur magnet. That‘s what happens.”

“But what does that mean — to be a business and entrepreneur magnet?”

“Hold on.”

She leaves me on hold, and never returns. About seven minutes later I finally give up.

My encounter with the Arroyo Seco Museum Science alternative school begins with more promise. The magnet coordinator actually returns my call. She explains that each class is partnered with a museum for field trips and projects, and that upper grades learn about actual museum employment and can serve as volunteer docents.

The magnet coordinator is friendly, intelligent, upbeat. Have I called the wrong school district by mistake? This is going better than I would have expected, until I ask which museums take part.

“We hope to have something worked out with the Southwest Museum by February,” she says, explaining that nothing has actually started, that the museum-science thrust is an attempt to give the existing magnet program more “identity.”

But what was the previous identity?

She explains that Arroyo Seco was originally an alternative school (the magnet brochure still lists it that way) featuring “progressive” teaching methods, such as “open classrooms, classrooms with-out walls.”

Was? Does any of this still go on?

No, she explains. Currently, the school uses the standard district curriculum.

Despite this identity crisis, close to 800 applicants are likely to vie for some 120 openings at the school. For that matter, the businessentrepreneurism school can expect 300 to compete for about 100 openings.

Out of curiosity, I call the other school listed as “alternative” in the magnet brochure, the Valley Alternative School, which also has a kindergarten. It too uses the standard district curriculum, I am told, but the school does have a long-standing distinguishing characteristic. Even before its designation as a magnet, the school was organized so that children from the same family could attend the same campus regardless of age, from kindergarten through high school.

My first call to Plasencia Elementary is a dud. I’m told the magnet portion of the school is not in session — so no one can answer any questions, there‘s nothing to see or visit, and it will be long after the application deadline before either condition alters. And yosu can’t check the test scores, because the school district won‘t separate the magnet’s scores from the regular school‘s.

For some reason I can’t explain, I call back. This time, I‘m promptly transferred to the magnet coordinator, who cheerfully answers all my questions, while making her program sound enticing, especially since it’s the first full-day kindergarten I‘ve been told of.

At the turn-in counter on Friday — deadline day — L.A. Unified has excellent, patient staff on hand, one person behind the counter and another walking up and down the long line. The application form is simple to fill out — the school district did well here — even though the lottery system itself is incredibly complicated and only partially comprehended by most parents.

Virtually all the programs are oversubscribed. But if we don’t get in, we get “turndown points,” which improves our chances for next year. That‘s okay, in our case. The magnet we really covet doesn’t start till first grade; we‘re willing to make other arrangements for K, maybe even private school.

Which is why I feel like a fraud. Here I stand, in a line of people desperately trying to get their children a decent public education. Meanwhile, we’ve finally decided we‘d rather be turned down, and build up points for next year. And we picked our school of choice accordingly, one that, probability suggests, we won’t get into. But that‘s the routine for working an education system that does not provide a worthy school for every student.

LA Weekly