One morning in early October, first-grade students at the William H. Ross School in Margate walked up one by one to an interactive screen, while others worked on monitors with individualized programs.

The goal was to allow students to learn at their own pace, no matter how far along they get. But underlying the COMPASS program is an attempt to stem declining enrollment by giving parents incentives to stay in town or to move in.

School districts in South Jersey’s shore towns have felt the greatest effect as their populations plummeted over the past 12 years. Districts have essentially shut down, schools have closed and staffs have been reduced. But efforts such as Margate’s to upgrade learning opportunities and the emergence of more options on where to send students to high school are starting to ease the problem.

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“Choice” high schools in Ocean City and at Mainland Regional that allow out-of-district residents to attend are attractive to some residents who have been reluctant to send students to Atlantic City High School.

“Margate has really established itself as kind of a good niche of providing quality and having class sizes kept at a reasonable amount,” said Margate Superintendent Theresa DeFranco. “Now, parents can add school choice if they move here, which I see as a positive for us.”

Between the 2000 and the 2010 census, shore towns from Barnegat Light to Cape May lost almost 17,000 year-round residents combined, including more than 3,000 each in Brigantine and Ocean City. Fourteen of those towns had double-digit percentage drops in population.

The drop in school enrollment that followed was predictable. Brigantine had the biggest decline from 2001-02 to 2011-12, dropping 42 percent, from 1,321 students to 768. Ventnor declined 22 percent, from 1,156 to 905, and Margate about 19 percent, from 604 to 492.

In Cape May County during that same period, enrollment dropped from 187 to 143 in Cape May, or 24 percent; 985 to 792 in Wildwood, or 20 percent; 408 to 323 in North Wildwood, or 21 percent; and, most dramatically, 185 to 45 in Sea Isle City, or 76 percent — though enrollment was at 66 in 2008-09, after which fifth through eighth grades began attending school in Ocean City.

This past year, Sea Isle closed its elementary school entirely and is sending all its students to Ocean City.

So what happened?

“Property values in general soared in those years,” said Margate interim Administrator Richard Deaney, who has been in similar positions in Sea Isle, Wildwood and North Wildwood. “It changed the socioeconomic dynamic in different ways.”

In the past, he said, “families would come (to the shore towns) in the winter for the good schools and inexpensive housing. But a lot of multifamily housing is gone in a lot of communities.”

Multifamily homes were sold at the height of the market in mid-decade and gave way to duplexes, McMansions and more luxurious summer homes, he said, and many of those families were unable to come back. In addition, families that can afford to move into town are older, meaning more children in the older grades and less kindergartners and first-graders.

As Avalon and Stone Harbor Superintendent Stacey Tracy said, “Young families can’t afford housing, pretty much. That’s basically it.”

Also not helping, said Brigantine Superintendent Bob Previti, are the fluctuations in hiring for large construction jobs such as the recently completed Route 52 causeway. Without the jobs, working-class families move away.

To deal with the decline, towns have taken different measures. Avalon and Stone Harbor essentially split their students between them — kindergarten to fourth in one town, fifth to eighth in another. Brigantine cut its staff from 112 in 2003 to 81 this year, which Previti said was the largest reduction of certified staff in the state.

But when it comes to enrollment over the past few years, Previti said, “We’ve been keeping pace. We’ve been stable year to year.”

Much of that has to do with the drop in home prices that has allowed new families to afford to move in and taken away incentive for current residents to sell and move out, he said.

In Margate, where one of three schools closed last year, DeFranco cited a study from Rich Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College, that showed enrollment was “extremely likely to be pretty steady over the next five years. It showed that there’s not going to be major declines.”

One of the reasons given by DeFranco and Previti was the increased “choice” program at Ocean City and Mainland Regional high schools. The issue of tuition costs for Brigantine, Margate, Ventnor and Longport to send students to Atlantic City High School — more than $20,000 per student, in most cases — has led to repeated attempts to sever ties with the school.

But with Ocean City accepting some out-of-district high school students this year, and Mainland starting to accept as many as 25 out-of-district students in 2013-14, the hope in the shore towns is that the tide of parents moving off-island to avoid going to Atlantic City High School will be stemmed.

“We’ve shown considerable interest from the eighth-grade class,” Previti said. “There’s already nine applications in my hand.”

School choice is also a plus for Margate, DeFranco said, adding that “we get many calls” from parents about Ocean City or Mainland. In addition, the COMPASS program, in its fourth year, allows students to proceed on math and language arts at their own pace, whether they need more instruction than others or they advance to the next grade level.

“You could have children in eighth grade doing high school work if they’re ready,” DeFranco said.

As a result of these developments, as well as an increased focus on science, technology, engineering and math, “people who didn’t consider Margate before now have. There are multiple choices for high school, and some of the options are very complementary for some of the things we do here,” she said. “Parents didn’t have all these options just a few years ago.”

Added one parent, Sarah Mammucarai, of Margate, who has a daughter in first grade: “It will make a big difference for Margate. Now that Ocean City is taking kids and Mainland is taking kids? People will move back here in droves.”

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