Schools are benefiting from School Choice, superintendent says

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OCEAN CITY — The Ocean City School District is a hot commodity.

More than 85 students from across the region applied for the 39 spots in Ocean City’s popular school choice program this year. The deadline to apply was Dec. 1.

“We were getting applications on the last day,” Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Taylor said. “We had more than 50 applications for the ninth grade spots. It was unbelievable.”

Ocean City asked for 15 spots in the freshman program, but may increase that request to 20. The school board, Taylor said, would discuss the issue at the Dec. 14 meeting.

“The board will have to approve this and the state Department of Education would have to approve it,” she said. “We started going over all of the applications, obviously we are going to have to establish a lottery.”

The district will also have to consider how to handle the issue of siblings. Several of the applicants are one of multiple family members; if one child is taken, Taylor said the board must decide what to do with other family members.

“We’re not obligated to take siblings unless they have been in the program for a year,” she said. “We don’t have to give them preference, but our thought is that you can’t split families. It wouldn’t be fair to take one child and not the other. We are ‘America’s Greatest Family Resort,’ so how do we take one sibling and say to the other ‘you can’t come’?”

Taylor said this creates logistical issues, however as several families have applied. Like putting a puzzle together, she said the school board would have to decide where to start first as the families that have applied could gain advantage if the board does not carefully consider how the selection is made.

“We are about families,” she said. “We are all about the strength of the family, but this is going to be very hard. We also have to be fair to the child who does not have a sibling applying. Everyone has to be given a fair shot in the lottery.”

The lottery would have to begin with a particular grade, but which one?

“The board will decide, we have from Dec. 15 to Jan. 4 to let the students know,” Taylor said.

Ocean City is one of 71 districts in the state chosen to participate in the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. Designed to increase and improve educational opportunities for children and families, the program allows students the option of attending a public school outside their district of residence without paying tuition.

The program is open to any student attending a New Jersey school. Bus transportation is provided to students living within 20 miles of the chosen school.

The state pays the district $11,500 tuition for each student participating, which Taylor said helps the budgetary bottom line for Ocean City.

The effort to fill empty seats and enhance the opportunities provided for all of the students has already proven to be very successful, Taylor said. The school board took a conservative approach, approving 10 students for the 2011-2012 school year, expanding to 39 for next year.

For this year, the program was open to ninth and tenth graders. In addition to 10 school choice students, the district accommodated three students whose parents paid tuition for a total of 13 students.

Taylor said the board vote for next year opens the program throughout the district, allowing one additional student in each grade kindergarten through eighth, 15 in ninth, one in 10th and one in 11th grade.

Students will be placed in a classroom without creating a need for a new teacher, said Taylor. If more students apply than there are openings, an audited lottery will be utilized.

The increase to 39 students at $11,500 means an additional $448,500 in revenue.

“We’re filling empty seats,” Taylor said. “By increasing the number of students we welcome to the district, we are able to offer more electives and expand the choices and offerings for all of our students. We are able to offer more of a variety.”

Taylor said the district would expand the foundation courses in the basic engineering programs, so more students are able to “get a feeling of what engineering is all about.” The school’s media program will also be enhanced, as well as the high school science program.

“We’re working on building an observatory, and we would like to do more with environmental studies with the bay and the ocean,” she said.

Taylor said the school board could add a few more students in other grades, too. Enrollment numbers for next year are expected from sending districts this month.

“Once we get the numbers in from our sending districts we will have a better idea of how many students are enrolled in each grade. If we look and say ‘we could add three more here without adding another section’ we’ll do it.

“Once you give the state a number, you are allowed to add more seats,” she said. “If you put zero down, you can’t add more seats. The one student in each grade is a place-keeper.”

Taylor said the school choice program has benefitted Ocean City.

“It promotes the district and the great things we are accomplishing,” she said.

An abundance of applicants means that a lot of students and parents in the region find the district appealing. With declining enrollment, the program is great for students and great for taxpayers, she said. The state is in severe economic distress, she noted. School districts throughout the state are cutting rather than expanding beneficial programs. School choice could make the difference between the available funds to keep some programs afloat or not.

The program was created by the New Jersey legislature in January 2000. The five-year pilot program was designed to explore whether public school choice would provide a viable educational option for New Jersey students and their families by offering flexibility in selecting a public school program that best meets the needs of  an individual student. Since the expiration of the pilot program in 2005, the New Jersey Department of Education has maintained the program.

With the addition of 56 districts last month, there are 71 districts in the program. The students choosing their own public school will nearly triple, from about 1,000 students now to nearly 2,900 students in the fall.

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