Posted with permission from NJ.com Local
At Union County's Academy for Information Technology in Scotch Plains, freshman Michael Moore, 14, works on coding a video  game in the school's
At Union County's Academy for Information Technology in Scotch Plains, freshman Michael Moore, 14, works on coding a video game in the school's "Hack Shack," a room where students teach each other coding. Students take an entrance exam to get a spot in the highly-competitive specialized high school. (Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)

This story is part of "N.J.'s hardest-to-get-into high schools," an NJ Advance Media special report on the rise of specialized public high schools for top students around the state.

ROCKAWAY -- What is the top public high school in New Jersey?

Millburn High School? Princeton? West Windsor-Plainsboro?

If you guessed any of those schools or another traditional high school, you're wrong.

New Jersey's best - and most exclusive -- public high school may just be tucked inside a small, brick school annex on a hilltop in Rockaway. Inside, about 100 of Morris County's smartest students are working in engineering labs and taking college-level math and science classes.

How to get into one of N.J.'s top high schools

Students here compete to get a chance to walk these hallways. More than 200 took the admissions test and sat through interviews to land one of 26 coveted spots in the freshman class - making the specialized high school as hard to get into as an Ivy League college.

The students averaged a staggering 2,213 (out of 2,400) on the SAT last year, among the highest in the state. Last year's graduates averaged more than $38,500 each in accepted college scholarships to schools like Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pennsylvania.

"The opportunities I have here are really unique," said Shalaka Madge, 18, a senior headed to Princeton University. "It's an experience very, very few high schoolers can get."

Newsweek named the school not only the best high school in New Jersey last year, but the second best public school in the nation.

The school is Morris County's Academy for Mathematics, Science and Engineering.

You're not the only who may have never heard of it.

A look inside New Jersey's other school system.

Morris County's Academy for Mathematics, Science and Engineering is one of New Jersey's growing number of specialized public high schools run by the county vocational technical districts. The high schools - which specialize in everything from engineering to performing arts - have boomed over the last few decades.

Though many students and parents may not know they exist, these rigorous schools have become among the best public schools in New Jersey.

Many students hear about the county-run high schools in middle school and take tests in the 8th grade to apply. If they are lucky enough to get in, they bypass their local high schools and are bused to the specialized high school with other top students from around their county.

Officials and students at the schools -- which have names like High Tech High School, Academy for Information Technology and Performing Arts Academy -- spend a lot of their time trying to explain the purpose of the schools.

"We constantly battle misconceptions about vocational schools," said Gwendolyn Ryan, assistant superintendent of Union County's vo-tech district and former principal of Union County Magnet High School.

The vo-tech districts still have classes for future welders, hairdressers and auto mechanics. But a growing part of their mission is now to run schools designed for super-smart students headed to top colleges.

The county-run magnet schools were started out of a need to attract more students.

In the 1990s, interest in traditional vo-tech subjects, started to wane in some counties.

So, the vo-tech districts posed a question: What if we offered programs that catered to top students headed to high-tech careers?

"County vocational schools, unlike a typical school district, they don't have any resident students. They have to generate their enrollment every year. So, they need to change with the times," said Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, a group representing the state's 21 districts.

The idea wasn't new. New York City has been running elite high schools, including Stuyvesant High School and Bronx High School of Science, for a century. Other cities and states, including Boston, Chicago and Virginia, also run specialized high schools with rigorous admissions tests for the region's most gifted students.

In the 1990s, Monmouth, Union and Bergen were among the counties in New Jersey that began to experiment with the idea in schools like High Tech High School, Union County Magnet School and Bergen County Academies.

The idea gradually began to spread to New Jersey's other counties. Some started stand-alone specialized high schools focused on science, math, engineering, computer science or other subjects. Other vo-tech districts started special programs or "schools within schools" for top students.

Everything is a learning experience, even gym.

Walk into Union County Magnet High School in Scotch Plains and one of the first rooms you see off the lobby is the new "maker space." The school gutted its old multi-media room and filled it with 3-D printers, robotics equipment and tens of thousands of dollars in high-tech machinery for its engineering students to play with.

Across the courtyard, students in the neighboring Academy for Information Technology are hunkered down over their computers in a student-run "Hack Shack," where they take turns teaching each other everything from the latest Java coding tricks to the best way to crimp an ethernet cord.

"My neighbor was in this school. He showed me his homework one day. I said, 'Wow, they are doing cool stuff over there. I have to get there,'" said Stephen Cropper, 17, a senior from New Providence who helps oversee the "Hack Shack".

Union County's sprawling campus in Scotch Plains now has 1,600 students in five specialized high schools, all surrounding a single courtyard. In the Academy for Allied Health Sciences building, students spend the equivalent of their gym class walking on a bank of treadmills in a high-tech lab while their classmates practice monitoring their heart rates on EKG machines.

How many of these specialized schools are there?

There are now 20 stand-alone specialized high schools and more than 60 programs and "schools within schools" run by New Jersey's vo-tech districts, according to the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools.

They are in every county in the state, except Essex, Warren, Sussex and Cumberland counties.

(Some individual schools districts have also started versions of academies tailored for top students, including McNair Academic High School in Jersey City and Elizabeth High School in Elizabeth.)

Some are called magnets schools. Others are dubbed career academies or high tech high schools. Some critics have called them "publicly-funded private schools."

All are built around the same idea: Create a school with small classes, rigorous courses and top teachers. Require students to get real-world career experience through internships and other projects. Admit only the top students in the county.

The rest of the world is beginning to notice New Jersey's hard-to-get-into high schools.

The success of the county-run high schools is reflected in national rankings.

Newsweeks' latest list of the Top 10 high schools in the country includes three of New Jersey's county-run specialized high schools: Morris County's Academy for Mathematics, Science and Engineering (#2 in the country), Union County Magnet High School (#4) and Middlesex County's Academy for Science, Math and Engineering Technology (#10).

U.S. News and World Report selected Monmouth County's High Tech High School as the No. 1 science, technology, math and engineering-focused high school in the nation in its latest rankings.

The county-run high schools also dominate lists of New Jersey's top schools. The top 12 New Jersey schools with the highest average SAT scores last year were all specialized vo-tech high schools.

Though supporters of traditional public schools say the comparisons are unfair. The county-run magnet schools have few, if any, students classified with disabilities and minimal low-income students. So, their test scores will always skew higher than even the best of New Jersey's traditional public high schools, the critics say.

Even former governors try to get kids in.

The calls come into the office of the Union County Vocational-Technical Schools all the time. The callers all have the same goal: to get a kid into Union County Magnet High School or one of the county's other highly-competitive career academies.

Sometimes the calls come from zealous parents, other times from well-meaning principals or teachers touting the merits of a student they feel deserves a seatin the specialized schools.

"Actually, we got a phone call from a former governor," said Peter Capodice, the superintendent of Union County's vo-tech district. "We hear from state senators, from congressmen, from local politicians, assemblymen, a county sheriff. You name it, they all call us. They say, 'I have a real good person.'"

School officials hear out the callers, but politely say no one can get into the popular schools through a back door. Everyone has to attend an information session in the 8th grade to learn about the schools. Then, they take an admissions test to prove they deserve a spot.

"We just use the points. It's strictly by the numbers," Capodice said.

How do students find out about these schools?

The demand to get into the specialized high schools continues to rise as the districts recruit students by sending fliers and counselors to local middle schools.

Most students who get in say they heard about the schools through word of mouth.

Andrea Diaz, 16, a junior from Linden, said she wanted to get into Union County Magnet High School from the moment her mother first told her about it.

"I wanted to get in so bad," Diaz said.

Once she arrived, she was surprised by the amount of work expected of her and the intensity of her high-achieving classmates.

"I went from a town that didn't have a great education to here," Diaz said, standing in a lab surrounded by 3-D printers and other high-tech robotics equipment. "There have been days I've been stressed out . . . But I wouldn't go back."

The teachers bring an extraordinary amount of experience to the table.

After more than 30 years as an engineer, Marc Weinstein was ready to retire from his job doing business modeling at Alcatel-Lucent.

A colleague told him about a job opening for an engineering teacher at her old high school - Middlesex County's Academy for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies.

"I was trying to figure out what to do with the second chapter with my life," said Weinstein, who is now in his third year teaching civil and mechanical engineering. "It was the perfect match."

Because of their highly-specialized classes, many of the vo-tech academies attract former industry professionals willing to teach. Many are retired or take a pay cut to take the unionized jobs, which require a teaching certificate.

Who pays for all of this?

Specialized high schools are not charter schools, which have drawn intense criticism from some in New Jersey for drawing money away from traditional public schools.

Instead, the specialized high schools are funded by the county vo-tech school districts.They are funded by the state, county taxpayers and a small amount of federal funding. 

If those three pieces don't contain enough money to fund the districts' schools, the vo-tech schools have the option of funding the last piece by charging tuition, usually about $6,000, to the local school district for each student they sent to the county-run schools.

Local districts also fund the buses to transport students to the vo-tech schools.

"This is actually a very cost-efficient model," said Scott Moffitt, superintendent of Morris County's vo-tech district.

Morris County's vo-tech district spent about $20,444 per pupil in total spending, including about $9,234 per student on classroom instruction, according to the 2015-2016 state education spending data.

By comparison, Mendham Township, one of the wealthier school districts in the county, spent about $27,205 per pupil. Dover, the poorest municipality in the county, spent about $15,766 per pupil.

Expect to see a lot more of these schools.

County vo-tech districts say the boom in specialized high schools will continue. Superintendents say they have ideas for new career academies and plans to expand existing schools.

Morris County is expanding the Academy for Math, Science and Engineering, admitting 48 new students a year, instead of 26.

Union County's vo-tech district, which has maxed out space on its Scotch Plains campus with five separate specialized high schools, is also exploring options for new schools.

"Do we want to? Yes we do," said Capodice, superintendent of Union County's vo-tech district. "We have some ideas about a new academy  . . . We have so much to offer. I don't think we'll ever saturate the market here."

Kelly Heyboer may be reached at kheyboer@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KellyHeyboer. Find her at " on Facebook.