Egg Harbor Township High School ranks about the middle of the pack statewide in academic performance, according to the new state Department of Education School Performance reports.

However, the education provided by that township was still good enough to prepare Pamela Rosario for four years at Harvard University, one of the top colleges in the nation.

High school students can choose the classes they take, and they can work hard to get good grades. But unless their families can afford to send them to a private school, they have little choice on which high school they attend beyond where they live. And based on state and national rankings, high schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties are just not as good as those in wealthier communities in the northern part of the state.

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Just how much high school rankings mean to a student’s future is difficult to say, but they can matter.

Rosario graduated from Harvard this month, four years after she gave her speech as valedictorian at Egg Harbor Township. She said it was a bit overwhelming when she arrived, but overall she believes she got a well-rounded education at her public high school, one that prepared her fairly well for the Ivy League college.

“A lot of other high schools had really intense science, technology and math classes, so I wasn’t as prepared as some other students in those areas,” she said. “But in English, languages and history, yes, I was prepared. Really, I think we were all playing catch-up in something at Harvard.”

A 2010 survey by the National Association of College Admissions Counselors found only 5 percent said the high school attended was of considerable importance in their admissions decisions. But another 27 percent said it was of moderate importance, and the report said the most selective schools gave it more influence.

John Iacovelli, dean of enrollment management at Richard Stockton College, said coming from a top-ranked high school can give a student some advantage in admissions. But, he said, ultimately he looks at the “fishbowl effect” of how well students performed in the environment they were in.

“A student in the middle of the class at a top high school may still be likely to succeed in college,” he said. “But that’s different than being in the middle of the class at a very low-performing school.”

Local education officials said most school rankings focus primarily on tests, including state test scores, SAT scores, and AP courses and test results. They give less consideration to how schools may be working to help all students, not just those preparing for college.

Locally, only Mainland Regional High School in Linwood made the cut of the 2013 U.S. News and World Report best high schools, ranking 872nd nationally out of 21,000 schools reviewed. The Atlantic County Institute of Technology in Mays Landing and the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Sciences in Manahawkin, Stafford Township, both were recognized as being among the best but were not numerically ranked among the 383 New Jersey public schools in the report.

Mainland Regional Superintendent Thomas Baruffi said he was especially gratified by that ranking because U.S. News looks not only at overall state test and AP scores, but also at how well the least-advantaged students performed compared with their peers.

“It wasn’t just about how many AP courses you offered, but are you meeting the needs of all students,” he said.

In one of the first national high school rankings, done by Newsweek in 2000, Mainland placed eighth in the nation among about 500 high schools based solely on AP courses offered and the number of students taking them. Baruffi said the change in their ranking reflects how competitive high schools and rankings have become, and ultimately parents have to focus on whether their local high school is meeting their child’s needs.

“I live in Egg Harbor Township and my kids go to school there and they get all the opportunities they need in all areas,” he said.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the N.J. Association of School Administrators, said rankings make competitive parents in wealthy suburbs feel good about themselves, but don’t give much context about growth in more complex urban areas. The state performance reports provide a lot of information but not enough context to be helpful, and they can be confusing.

“I like to read them, too,” he said. “But they could be more meaningful.”

Stan Karp, director of the Secondary Reform Project with the Education Law Center in Newark, said state and national policy have moved the focus from improving struggling schools to creating competition among schools.

“Everything depends on the population that is being served,” he said. “Schools in New Jersey are being rewarded for demographics and punished for demographics. It’s the reinforcement of inequity. For an administration that says ZIP code is not destiny, they are using systems where ZIP code is destiny.”

For parents, that means taking advantage of limited opportunities to send their child to a better school. New Jersey now offers choice schools, charter schools, magnet schools and the expansion of full-time vocational schools, all of which can be more selective in their enrollment. This may give students more options, but it can also lure motivated and high-performing students from traditional public schools. Local choice high schools include Mainland Regional, Ocean City and Hammonton.

All 12 high schools chosen this year as top-performing “reward” schools by the state Department of Education were selective magnet academies, including Science Park High School in Newark, Dr. Ronald McNair Academy High School in Jersey City and eight vocational school academies. The state criteria are based on student performance on state tests and graduation rates.

Biotechnology High School in Freehold, Monmouth County, placed as the eighth-best high school in the United States in the recent U.S. News and World Report list of top high schools. Eight of the top 10 New Jersey high schools included in the report also were academies.

The Atlantic County Institute of Technology has accepted 437 students into its freshman class for September and is still reviewing applications. Superintendent Philip Guenther said the allied health and medical academy programs are the most popular, with students coming pretty proportionally from all areas of the county. He said students and their parents today are more interested in career paths, and like the hands-on practical education offered at the school.

Mainland was approved for the state choice program this year, received 125 applications and will accept 35 freshmen from other towns in the fall. Baruffi said about a third are coming from Absecon, which is a sending district to Pleasantville High School, among the lowest-performing schools.

New Jersey Monthly Magazine’s 2012 ranking of public high schools includes only two local high schools, Mainland Regional and Ocean City, in its top 100, ranking them 63rd and 81st, respectively. Criteria included class size, state test results, SAT and AP test scores, and graduation rates. The NJ Monthly rank includes the district’s socioeconomic ranking, which shows virtually all of the best high schools are in the wealthiest towns, and the lowest-performing schools are in the poorest areas.

Of 328 public high schools ranked by the magazine, Buena Regional ranked 316th, Cumberland Regional 312th, Millville 308th, Vineland 297th and Pleasantville 267th. All are among the most socioeconomically challenged areas in the state, with high rates of poverty and unemployment. Still, the three top graduates of Millville High School this year all were accepted to competitive colleges, and will attend the University of Delaware, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stockton.

Ocean City High School is a prime example of the mixed effect of rankings. The district’s “peer schools,” according to 2013 New Jersey School Performance Reports, are among the wealthiest schools in the state, including Millburn, Essex County, and Chatham, Morris County. Compared with those peers, the school performs poorly, though statewide it is above average.

Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said year-round residents in Ocean City are a more socioeconomic mix, and the district works hard to meet the needs and interests of all students.

“The positions of builders, engineers, hoteliers, doctors, restaurateurs and others are filled with Ocean City High School graduates, who have the caliber of a successful employee,” Taylor wrote in an email. “At the same time, our district offers a challenging college preparatory program.”

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