Sophomore Katherine Gogol, 15, of Winslow Township, left, and Rachel Blazer, 17, of Folsom, work on computers in their graphic design class at Hammonton High School. The almost $255,000 in extra state aid the district received for accepting about 40 choice students paid for the computers.

Michael Ein

Schools in the state Public School Choice program have begun recruiting students for the 2012-13 school year. Parents have until Nov. 1 to notify their hometown school district that they plan to transfer their child to one of the 70 approved choice districts next year. 

Non-public school students may also apply to a choice district, but by law preference must be given to public school students. But with some programs expanding this year, school officials believe they will have room for most applicants, which in turn will allow them to expand programs. 

All students attend at no cost to parents. Statewide about $18 million in extra state aid was distributed to the choice schools this year allowing them to control property taxes, buy equipment and avoid layoffs. 

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The purchase of new Apple computers at Hammonton High School has allowed the school to expand its graphic design courses to every student who wants to take them. This year, those students include 40 freshmen and sophomore choice students from other towns. The almost $255,000 in extra state aid the district received for accepting those students paid for the computers.

“We were able to open up more opportunities for all students because of the extra school choice aid,” high school Principal Thomas Ramsay said. He said choice students were split pretty evenly between public and private school transfers. 

Sophomore Katherine Gogol, 15, of Winslow Township, Camden County, said her father studied graphic design in college.

“It’s just like being the new kid at any school,” said Katherine, who attended Haddonfield High School last year. “But it’s not that far away, and I’m looking at doing some activities.”

Trey Hughey, 15, and Gabrielle O’Rourke, 15, both sophomores, and Amanda Reid, 14, a freshman, all from Winslow Township, transferred in from private schools for the programs offered. 

“I always liked technology and computers,” said Gabrielle, who also attended Folsom Elementary School as a choice student.  Trey is taking 3-D animation and playing basketball and Amanda is taking a TV Media class where students are using Final Cut Pro X to learn how to edit.

“We used to have to turn kids away from the tech classes,” Ramsay said. “But with the choice money we can expand them.”

The choice program has been especially attractive to small or shrinking districts that have extra space and can accommodate more students at little to no added cost. Budget caps and and limited state aid made the opportunity to get additional aid extremely attractive. 

Hammonton joined the choice program with openings just at the high school, but plans to expand to the elementary and middle schools next year. Ocean City is also expanding its choice program into the elementary and middle schools. 

Dorey Bryan, secretary in the small school in West Cape May, said they are already fielding calls for next year. 

“I don’t think we’ll have any problem filling our choice slots,” she said. “But I really hope we don’t need a lottery. I hate disappointing people.”

If more families apply than there are seats in a specific grade, the choice district must hold a lottery to decide which children can attend. West Cape May was approved for 20 choice students next year, but Bryan said they may take fewer since new families moved into the town, increasing enrollment in the small K-6 school. 

Tuckerton has 20 choice students this year and hopes to add 10 more. Most came from Little Egg Harbor Township.

“The choice state aid saved a bus, half a teacher and aides,” Superintendent Robert Gray said. The district is getting about $163,000 this year.

The Pittsgrove Township School District in rural Salem County attracted families from the larger neighboring town of Vineland and also from local private schools. The district has 45 choice students this year and has been approved for 76.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Brodzik said the extra $277,000 in state aid helped fund a music teacher and saved the jobs of two basic skills teachers.

“We already have contacted people who missed the deadline last year,” Brodzik said. “Right now we have at least one seat open in every grade.” 

Public school choice deadlines

Nov. 1: Parents notify their hometown school district they plan to transfer their child to the choice school in 2012-13

Dec. 1: Parents apply to the choice district.

Dec. 15-Jan. 4: Choice districts notify public school parents if their child has been accepted.

Jan. 13: Accepted public school parents enroll their child in the choice district.

Jan. 27: Choice districts notify non-public school parents if their child has been accepted.

Feb. 3: Non-public school families enroll their child in the choice district.

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