Tamala Marks, of the Rio Grande section of Middle Township, Cape May County, greets her daughter Annika, 10, on Tuesday after the first day of school at West Cape May Elementary, a state choice school where 22 of 69 students live outside the district.

Staff photo by Dale Gerhard

Forty school districts have been approved to join the state school choice program as boards of education look for ways to bolster enrollment and generate extra state aid.

Mainland Regional High School plans to open its newly renovated facility to students from outside Northfield, Linwood and Somers Point next fall.

“The time was right,” Superintendent Thomas Baruffi said. “There is a lot of positive energy in the district, we have the space, and it also represents a revenue source.”

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Three Cape May County districts — Lower Cape May Regional, Cape May and Woodbine — also have been approved by the state to join the choice program and will begin accepting applications this year for the 2013-14 school year.

The additional districts bring the total number of choice schools to 107, and will add 2,787 additional seats in choice schools. The newly expanded program has caught on quickly in districts with extra space. Revenue from choice aid is also welcomed.

Baruffi said Mainland will accept as many as 25 freshmen from other towns next year, and the extra money will help sustain or add programs without having to ask local taxpayers for funds. In 2011-12, the high school district had about 1,470 students.

This year, the state will provide $33 million in choice aid for 3,357 students in 67 school districts, or about $9,800 per student, although the amount varies by district based on costs.

Locally, Hammonton will get the largest amount, more than $1 million for more than 100 choice students as it expands its choice program from the high school to the middle and elementary schools. The district has almost 3,500 students and used about $400,000 of its choice funds for its technology initiative at the middle and high schools, upgrading computer equipment with programs that benefit all students.

Hammonton Middle School will welcome 38 new choice students. The district has purchased iPads for use in all science classes as part of the district’s science, technology, engineering and math initiative, Principal Gene Miller said.

High school Principal Thomas Ramsay said every classroom there now has a 60-inch flat screen, teachers are getting iPads and Wi-Fi has been upgraded throughout the building.

“We are giving teachers more opportunities to use technology,” Ramsay said.

West Cape May opened school Tuesday with 69 students, 22 of them residents of other towns, Superintendent Alfred Savio said. The extra $272,000 the district received in choice aid helped pay for five new electronic Smart Boards and a new automated student record-management system.

Lower Cape May Regional, which has about ,1,530 students, will accept as many as 74 choice students in grades seven through 12 next year, Superintendent Jack Pfizenmayer said. Becoming a choice school will also give choice students attending the kindergarten through sixth-grade Lower Township schools the opportunity to continue through high school with their classmates rather than having to return to their hometown school. About 60 choice students attend school in Lower Township, which has a total school enrollment of about 1,825.

“They will still have to apply to be choice students with us, but now they have that option,” Pfizenmayer said. “And it will help us stabilize our enrollment, and generate some revenue.”

Both Lower Cape May Regional and Cape May had applied last year, but withdrew after the state Department of Education said it would reduce other aid those districts receive to offset the choice aid. But the state has now begun to reduce that aid anyway, so the districts believe they can benefit from the choice funding while still offering small class sizes.

Cape May is adding 20 choice seats to the 140-student enrollment in grades kindergarten through six, but some grades only have one seat open

Woodbine will offer about three or four seats each in grades kindergarten through eight, which will keep class sizes at about 20 students in the small district of about 200 children. Superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said they already have a few tuition students, most of whose parents work at the nearby Woodbine Developmental Center, and it was those parents who approached her about becoming a choice school.

“The parents like the convenience, and they like our small class sizes and personal attention,” Anderson-Towns said. “We are not a wealthy district. A penny only raises $17,000 here, so every extra little bit of money we can get from the state helps.”

All of the choice districts will begin promoting their programs in September and many post information on their websites. Mainland will hold an open house at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 27 and Estell Manor is inviting interested families to attend their back to school night at 7 p.m. Sept. 20.

Public school parents must notify their hometown district by Nov. 2 if they plan to transfer their child to a choice school next year. All applications for both public and nonpublic school students must be received by Dec. 3, but public school students are given first preference for the open seats. If more children apply than there are seats in any school or grade, a lottery is used to determine who will attend.

Transportation is provided as allowed by state law. If children are not eligible for busing, families can receive state aid in lieu of transportation, which is about $900 for the school year.

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