When Charter Tech High School for the Performing Arts opened in September 1999, after a two-year battle that moved the fledgling charter school from Ocean City to Linwood, this year's graduates had not yet even started school.
"We have always been here to them," school founder Jerry Klause said Wednesday as he talked about students' options during the groundbreaking for an expansion at their current site in Somers Point. "They don't know any other way."
The regional high school had its charter renewed this year by the state Department of Education for another five years. The 8,700-square-foot, eight-classroom expansion, scheduled to open in September, will allow enrollment to grow from 300 to the maximum 400 allowed by its charter. About 110 freshmen are expected for the 2013-14 school year, school administrator Arthur Tubbs said.
Klause said there is more support for public school options now than there was in 1997, when he and Kerry Treasure led the effort to open a charter high school focused on the performing arts. The Ocean City Board of Education, which originally opposed the charter school, now accepts students from other towns as a choice district.
A former school board member in Ocean City himself, Klause said the budget for extracurricular activities such as music and dance was so small in his last year there, it gave him and Treasure the idea to start a charter school with performing arts at its core.
"We weren't trying to change the world," he said. "Just a little piece of it. We wanted to give those 'square peg' kids a square hole. Still today, parents will tell me how much this school means to their child."
Klause said they discussed requiring students to audition for admission, but he didn't want it to be competitive.
"I wanted it to be about following your passion," he said.
Passion is plentiful among current students. Not all plan to make the arts their career, but it will always be part of their life.
This year's graduating class has two valedictorians, Lindsey Lee Evans, of Mays Landing, who plans to attend Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania to major in music education, and Julia Theresa Marrone, of Brigantine, who will attend American University in Washington, D.C., and major in psychology.
"I really had no intent of majoring in music when I came here. I just liked to sing and be around other people who liked to sing," Evans said. She said the academic program is challenging and her senior year has been especially demanding.
Robert Kessler, 18, of Brigantine, came to the school for its instrumental music program and will attend Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken in the fall to study technology for music and recording. He believes the experiences he got at Charter Tech helped him get accepted to the college.
"I could show them what I already know," he said.
Lyzzi Moore, 18, of Egg Harbor Township, believes Charter Tech's vocal music program helped her get in to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she will study songwriting.
Charter Tech students must meet the same state academic requirements and take the same state test as public school students. They also must pick a major from one of five areas - instrumental music, voice, dance, musical theatre and tv/film/animation - and can expect to do two major performances a year.
As in all charter schools, any student can apply and if there are more applications than there are seats, a lottery is used to determine who attends. As a public school, admission is free. Charter schools are funded through the students' hometown school districts.
While there is no audition, Tubbs said students must have a passion for their art, if not a lot of experience. He said they will spend a lot of time in class and performances, and they must pass both their academic and arts programs to graduate. The expansion will allow the school to add more electives and advanced courses.
Klause said operating a charter school still has its challenges. The new building, estimated to cost about $2 million, will be built and owned by Gibbsboro, Camden County-based Scarborough Properties, which owns the land on Route 9 and also built the 33,000-square-foot original school. The expansion was originally approved by the state in 2011, but Sean Scarborough said it took time to arrange the financing.
"They are an established school now, which helps," he said. "But it just worked out best if we owned the building and they rented from us."
The school opened in 1999 at the old Poplar Avenue School in Linwood after the Ocean City Planning Board rejected the founders' effort to locate at the former Stainton's Department Store. They moved to the Somers Point location on Route 9 in 2002.
The school originally leased the building from Scarborough but later used its option to buy. Klause, who had put some of his own money into starting the school, said the state charter law still makes it very hard for charter schools to buy or build a facility. He'd like to see successful charters be renewed for 10 years rather than five.
"It should be hard to open a charter school," he said. "But we are successful. And when your charter can only be renewed five years at a time, it's hard to get bank financing."
While there is no plan to expand beyond the 400 students, Klause said he still wants to add a performing arts center.
"We are a performing arts school," he said. "I do expect to do more. We still have visions and goals."
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