Students and schools hopeful, nervous about Choice program

June 22, 2011

When the New Jersey Department of Education announced in April that 56 additional districts including 16 in the tri-county area will join the state's current 15 Interdistrict Public School Choice districts, there was a simple concept behind it.

The Choice program, which gives students the option of attending public school outside their home district without cost, is in line with Gov. Chris Christie's belief that students should have as many educational options open to them as possible.

"The Christie administration wants all children to have the same hope and opportunity that comes with attending a school that fits their needs," acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said when the new Choice districts were announced April 14.

But while the concept is clear, there's nothing simple about the program, which has left some of the newcomers districts as well as families with questions.

"I'm excited, but I'm nervous, as well," said 15-year-old Carolina Hooper, a Mickleton resident who is leaving Kingsway Regional High School to spend her junior and senior years at Glassboro High School's new Fine & Performing Arts Academy.

Glassboro's magnet-type program includes individual art and music lessons and college-credit courses at Rowan University. Hooper who has taken cello lessons since age 8 and joined the Rowan University Youth Orchestra in sixth grade couldn't pass it up.

"I'll miss my friends here, but I'll keep my old friends and make new ones," she said. "It will be a better experience for me."

But Hooper's mother, Lucy, does not know who will be transporting her daughter and Carolina Hooper's best cello to school every day. The Glassboro district is working on a plan, she said, but it could turn out that Mom and Dad will end up as chauffeurs.

The sending district receives transportation aid for students and is responsible for providing transportation. But if transportation costs more than the maximum allowable per student $884 this year and next parents or guardians have to make up the difference or accept that amount in lieu of transportation.

For students who live more than 20 miles from their Choice schools, there is no mandated transportation.

Anna Marie Fiore of Merchantville enrolled her son, Julian Inverso, in Glassboro's academy. The 14-year-old bass guitarist, who attended Camden Catholic High School this year, will be a sophomore in the fall.

Fiore said the Glassboro district has filed paperwork with Merchantville to provide transportation.

"We're 19 miles away, so we do make the 20-mile requirement," Fiore said. "But this is all so new, and if we don't get busing, it could throw a wrench into the program for a lot of us."

New Choice districts also feel excited but nervous.

"For us, it's been very positive. We're really focused on the all the strengths we bring," said Colleen Moran, early childhood supervisor for the Lindenwold School District, who who is doubling as its Choice coordinator.

The deadline for public school students to submit an "Intent to Enroll" form to their resident districts was originally April 18, just days after the DOE began listing participating districts on its website.

The deadline was extended to May 2, still considered too short a period by participating districts.

"For the pilot districts, the program works like a charm but the newbies are struggling," Moran said. "Next year will be much better."

Brooklawn Superintendent John Kellmayer agreed. Alice Costello School has been accepting Choice students since Brooklawn joined its pilot program 10 years ago.

"Districts didn't really have time this year to prepare," he said. "Next year will be their learning curve, as they decide whether they are going to aggressively go out and recruit students."

Kellmayer, whose Choice students mostly come from neighboring Camden and Gloucester City, said the draw for Choice schools isn't more computers or a specific program, but something more basic.

"Most parents are looking for a safe and orderly environment. They want to know, "Can you teach my child to read?'"

In September, the state Legislature passed the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Act of 2010. It updates and modifies the program it created in 2000 as a five-year pilot that has continued in 15 districts statewide including Brooklawn and South Harrison.

Under the Choice program, districts receive a unique per-pupil amount from the state based on a funding formula.

"The basic premise is that when students leave their resident districts, the levy does not follow them the parents continue to pay property taxes in the resident district," said DOE spokesman Alan Guenther.

"So the state provides the local portion to the Choice district."

Audubon Superintendent Don Borden said there will be "little to no financial effect, good or bad," in his district during its first year in the Choice program. Audubon is limiting its program to the high school, which has declining enrollment. It has students coming from Gloucester City and Brooklawn next year, but Borden noted transportation could become an issue.

Districts can funnel students into specialty programs also open to resident students, such as the new fine arts and music academy in Glassboro and a naval science program in existence for the past decade at Sterling High School.

Choice schools can pick from their applicants after testing and interviewing them to determine they will do well in the district, and can refuse to take students who need special services they cannot provide.

At Sterling High School in Somerdale, there are 34 Choice seats for ninth- and 10th-grade students who want to join the naval science program, the only one of its kind in Camden County.

"We've sent out 15 or 16 acceptance letters and have another 10 on a waiting list pending receipt of the end-of-year grades," said Mark Napoleon, Sterling's guidance director and coordinator of the Choice program. He expects to fill nearly all 34 spots.

Most of the students about a third of them girls are coming from Lawnside, Pennsauken, Cherry Hill, Lindenwold, Barrington and Audubon. Napoleon doesn't expect transportation to be an issue, even if home districts aren't able to provide it.

"If you want your children to come, you're going to find a way to get here," he said.

In Glassboro, the Fine & Performing Arts Academy was being considered before the district applied for the Choice program. Nineteen Glassboro residents have applied, with 20 music and five art seats available for Choice students. To date, seven Choice students have been accepted.

We had hoped for more," Principal Santina Haldeman said, citing the tight deadlines as a deterrent. She does not believe the program will be a revenue enhancer in its first year, but hopes to break even.

Kaytlynn Capasso, a 16-year-old from Carneys Point, lives down the block from Penns Grove High School but jumped at the chance to attend Glassboro's academy. Capasso, who is entering 11th grade, plays four instruments.

Her grandparents and guardians, Tony and Sandy Capasso, said the decision was a no-brainer.

"The first year will probably have some bumps in the road, but later on it will be excellent," Tony Capasso said.

The program tends to work well in smaller districts that have space, do not need to take on extra staff to teach the new students and benefit from the students' arrival creating more diversity in the population, for example as much as the students benefit from being there.

Districts with Choice openings and no public school student waiting list can fill their slots with students from nonpublic schools.

In Brooklawn, Kellmayer has asked for more slots because he's got a waiting list of students from St. Mary's School in Gloucester City. Its closing at the end of this school year came as a surprise to parents when the Camden Diocese announced it in May.

Kellmayer is proud of Brooklawn's program but there are pitfalls, he noted, particularly at first.

"There can be some resentment from residents to bringing outside students into the district. "Who are these children? Will one of them take my child's spot on the basketball team?' "

The program is clearly not for all districts. Haddonfield compares its schools to private prep schools and has a successful middle and high school tuition program. Districts can offer tuition programs or Choice, but not both.

In Evesham, a plan to become a Choice district to bring in revenue was rejected by the school board in October, two days before the deadline to apply. Residents came out in force to denounce the proposal.

In Cherry Hill, the idea never got that far.

"Our administration believed that a decision to apply required significantly more study than (the state) deadline allowed," said Cherry Hill district spokeswoman Susan Bastnagel.

"We also noted last fall that the 15 districts participating as Choice districts on a pilot basis were much smaller than ours."

In addition, Cherry Hill with nearly 12,000 students does not have declining enrollment and is already is a diverse district.

In comparison, Brooklawn has 330 students in the district, which stops at grade eight including its 95 Choice students.

Berlin Township was approved for 32 Choice slots and has filled 28, Superintendent Brian Betze said. He sees it as a way of creating more diversity and bringing in some money to make up for a loss of more than $1 million in state aid.

"Most of our new kids are coming from Chesilhurst and Winslow and we're thrilled," Betze said.

He hopes the district will gain about $200,000 in state funds for taking on the nonresident students next year.

In Audubon, with 47 seats available for Choice students in ninth and 10th grades, only 10 students are signed up for the fall.

Borden said the state's deadlines are to blame, and he's disappointed more students won't be coming in 2011-12.

"But maybe this is a way to get our feet wet, cut our teeth, dot our i's and cross our t's and move forward next year."