In a dire climate for New Jersey property taxes, the Collingswood school district is hoping a new high-school student receiving program will strengthen its revenue base while raising its academic profile.
Although the project is still under development, expects to debut its 21st Century Communications and Media Academy in the 2013-14 school year. The Board of Education gave its formal blessing to the plan at its Feb. 27 meeting.
According to the Interdistrict School Choice Program website, “The program is designed to increase educational opportunities for students and their families by providing students with the option of attending a public school outside their district of residence without cost to their parents.”
The academy would accept 20 students in its first year, 10 each in the ninth and 10th grades. As it develops, said Superintendent Scott Oswald, the academy could be expanded to 12 students per grade level, with the possible inclusion of eighth-graders as well. Applicants would have to demonstrate a solid academic record, a discipline history free of violence or severe behavioral issues, and pass a public speaking audition.
As the only school in the immediate area with a TV production program, Oswald said, Collingswood could likely draw students from towns like Audubon, Haddon Heights, Haddonfield, Pennsauken and Camden. Collingswood already receives high school students from Oaklyn and Woodlynne.
Collingswood High School principal Edward Hill says academy coursework will build on the existing curricular foundation available at the high school while expanding into graphic design, journalism, graphics, public speaking, and music recording and production.
“When they become seniors, they will have developed a TV honors program senior portfolio, advanced graphics portfolio, and an independent study senior experience that may include internships in local programs such as Comcast,” Hill said.
He added that likely collaborators will also include Collingswood TV and Rowan University, with which Hill said the high school has an articulation agreement for course credits.
“You may see it as part of the wave of the future with 21st-century learning in the area of media,” Hill said. “I also see the academy approach reaching out to other departments in the school; for example, the science department or our technology department."
Hill also said that current Collingswood students have demonstrated “extremely high interest in this program,” and that both they and students from area sending districts “will have the same opportunity to enroll in the academy.”
Some parents at the Feb. 27 meeting objected to the concept, fearing that bringing in tuition students would freeze Collingswood residents out of advanced placement courses or athletic competition.
“Right now, there is room in this program,” Oswald said. “We schedule sections based upon enrollment. We’ve never bumped a student; with the exception of basketball, there’s no cutting that goes on.”
A neighborhood model
Even without a specialized charter like that of the media academy, the School Choice Program has helped Audubon High School combat declining enrollment by bringing in kids who are motivated to succeed, said Superintendent Donald A. Borden.
“Wherever [School Choice enrollment students] are coming from, they have to view this as a better opportunity,” Borden said. “They tend to be, by default, focused academically. The kids that we’ve had here have just been a tremendous addition to our student body.”
Borden said Audubon enrolled 11 students in the program in 2010-11; by the next year, the district had 47 applicants to consider for 30 spots. In overage situations, program rules mandate a lottery drawing, and Borden said some children left the school crying, “which is a heartbreak for educators to see.”
Although Audubon only offers generalized school choice, Borden said that other high schools are following the Collingswood model. Glassboro is offering a performing arts concentration, and Sterling is recruiting for an ROTC program.
“This is only a [grades] 9 through 12 initiative for us,” Borden said. “It’s not necessarily a specialized track; just a choice of what school environment you’d like to attend. We advertised [Audubon] as a comprehensive 9 to 12 with an outstanding extracurricular program, a highly regarded band, and performing arts.”
Even without any specialized curriculum, Borden said the Audubon school district talked about School Choice as a fait accompli in the evolution of New Jersey public education.
“In discussion with our board from minute one, we felt like this was going to happen one way or another,” Borden said. “The face of education in New Jersey is changing; whether we agree is irrelevant. Do we want to be ahead of it or behind it?”
Borden said Audubon faced similar questions of how choice students would integrate within the general population. He reports, anecdotally, that students in the program are “the kind of kids you want going to school with your kids,” and are almost indistinguishable from the general student body.
“I think kids today are more accepting of a lot of things than we were because they’re more knowledgeable,” Borden said. “We’ve become more assimilated as a society, to their credit.”
Borden further believes that Collingswood will have a great deal of success with the academy program, not least of all because it has experience receiving Oaklyn and Woodlynne students within its fold.
“I don’t think that the mindset changes,” he said. “Once they’re enrolled in your building, they are your kids.
"We will enjoy their educational experience until the day we hand them a diploma,” Borden said.