With 70 New Jersey school districts now opening their doors to outside students, nearly 2,000 students chose to leave their hometowns for their education this fall, according to preliminary figures from the state.
For the schools, it's an opportunity to fill seats and pick up extra money from the state -- as much as $11,500 per student. For the students, it's a chance to participate in programs not offered by their own schools.
The biggest takers continue to be the dozen districts that have pioneered New Jersey's Interdistrict Public School Choice program for the past decade, with 275 students from across Bergen County attending Englewood's high school academies and close to 200 attending Folsom's lone elementary school.
But with Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature's move last spring to expand the program to virtually any willing district, twice as many students are now participating overall in communities scattered across the state.
For instance, Alexandria in Hunterdon County is taking 18 students, and Runnemede in Camden County has six. Morris School District has 14 students, and Clinton Township 45. Deal Township has 98 students this fall, the largest number of any of the new districts.
And in a program that had seen slow growth in its first decade, the interest only seems to be growing, with more than 3,000 seats being offered for next fall.
The first round of applications for next fall are due Nov. 1, and the state this week will be stepping up its promotion of the program. Details on the application process are.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Education held an open house for Camden City families who wanted to learn more about the program in that county, where 12 districts are participating.
The chief sponsor of the legislation expanding the program said it seemed to have hit a "sweet spot" of interest.
"It sounds like we're meeting a need," said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex). "It's allowing districts to be creative and expand their outreach."
"I think we need to get past the parochialism," she said. "Students can benefit when going to school in other communities and with other children."
The state's numbers indicate that the greatest interest in the program is in the southern and western parts of New Jersey. In addition to Camden County, Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May and Gloucester also have at least three districts accepting outside students. Still, not all areas of the state are joining in; no Essex, Mercer, or Middlesex districts are involved as yet.
The top 20 districts in terms of Choice students enrolled this fall are the following: (Those marked with asterisk are new to the program this year.)