NJ School District Successfully Implements School Choice Program
In New Jersey, parents can send their children to another school district through the Inter-district Choice Program (“Choice”), enacted by Governor Christie in September 2010. Approved school districts use a lottery to select students and the State reimburses education costs. This article reviews how a receiving district can ensure successful implementation of Choice so that all of the children — local residents and Choice participants — are poised to achieve academically.
Our county superintendent encouraged our school superintendent to apply to become a receiving choice district as we are a small, one-school rural district. Like many districts, we faced budgetary woes as our tax base was capped. In the middle on socioeconomic indices, academically we have been spotlighted by New Jersey Monthly as one of the top 75 schools in the state. Students in grades 7 through 12 come from three elementary schools and consistently number about 375 students; our capacity is 450.
After receiving strong support from our board of education, our superintendent and I, as Choice coordinator, wrote the application. The N.J. DOE Choice office was extremely helpful as were the pilot districts; we were approved to accept almost 30 students. Our administrative team knew that successful implementation lay in careful design. Together we visualized every detail and built in a plan for continuous reflection and refinement.
We anticipated concerns of constituent groups: teachers reluctant to own the scores of new students, parents and students impacted by growing class and athletic team sizes and the community, homogeneous and rooted in history. We thought about new students who were entering from as near as a mile away, some legacies, some desiring an alternative to the large high school in the neighboring district, some with a keen interest in our agricultural program and the courageous spirit of students coming from urban areas up to 20 miles away for better opportunities. Our list was lengthy. We had a short time between approval and implementation. Our three-member team was fortunate to have a teacher assist us as an administrative intern in the planning and implementation of the program.
We decided, quite intentionally and unequivocally, that our main objective was to integrate the new students and their families as quickly as possible. We delivered a consistent message: these are our students and must be held to the same academic expectations and student code of conduct — no exceptions. Any other message would have allowed unacceptable delineation. We asked resident families to help welcome the Choice students. Their generosity was exemplary — before school even opened, student ambassadors held a day-long “meet and greet.” Students became involved in summer athletic camps and parent organizations signed up volunteers to chaperone dances and attend athletic fundraisers.
Our team continuously refined our practices and made adjustments. When lack of transportation threatened to prevent some students from attending our school, our BOE designated some of the choice aid to pay for a bus and afterschool supervision by a teacher who helped with homework. This allowed students to be involved in extracurricular activities. Data indicated that some students needed additional academic help to fill in the gaps that they missed in their former districts; we are providing this. As coordinator, I was accessible to parents who knew that they could call me on topics ranging from academics to the whereabouts of a late bus.
The Inter-district Choice program has had a positive effect on our school. This academic year we will welcome 34 new students, along with all 21 who are returning from last year. Hardly a day passes without receiving an inquiry about applying to our school. Our success in implementing Choice is due to our team’s intentional planning and reflection on how to best serve all of our students. #
Mary Robinson Cohen, M.A, J.D. is an assistant principal and director of curriculum and instruction in the South Hunterdon Regional School District, Lambertville, N.J.