Back to School With MATES

Marine Science Academy Turns 25

Photo by: J.D. Watson

Stafford Township — As regularly as the tides or the phases of the moon, it happens every year. Across Ocean County, teachers and administrators are busy preparing their classrooms and buildings for the beginning of the school year.

Things aren’t that different in a small building tucked up on a hill behind Southern Regional High School in Stafford Township. There, on a small campus it shares with a satellite location of Ocean County College, the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Sciences is busy getting ready to welcome a typically small freshman class.

The first order of business is to prepare the freshmen for their upcoming research projects.

School hasn’t even started yet and their research topics are due.

Each year, through a rigorous admissions process, MATES accepts about 72 Ocean County applicants to its program. Administered through the Ocean County Vocational Technical School, the academy is a specialized high school developed around the marine and environmental science theme. MATES is geared toward students who wish to concentrate their studies in the areas of math and science.

As such, each incoming freshman is responsible for planning, executing and presenting a research project, usually based around environmental science, according to John A. Biscardi, MATES principal.

“We have three meetings for the incoming freshmen, scheduled between July and August. There are two seniors available to mentor them in our RAD program, Research Assistance Development,” Biscardi said.

The research topics are due the first day of school; this year, it is Wednesday, Sept. 4.

Since its inception, MATES has been designed to give its students a rigorous academic curriculum with concentration in math, science and technology, according to Dr. John Wnek, MATES supervisor.

Wnek has been with the school since the beginning. “In the summer of 1994, I was working at a school and was approached by the vocational school. They were working on a program centered on marine sciences and the environment,” he remarked during a recent interview in one of the student lounges, surrounded by student academic awards mounted on the walls. Dressed in a T-shirt, cargo pants and hiking boots, Wnek seemed somewhat out of place. One would more expect to find him in the field somewhere, conducting experiments measuring water oxygen levels, or tracking terrapin numbers. And maybe that’s fitting.

His biography on the school web page says, “I teach Oceanography in the fall and Student Research Methods and Applications in the spring. My classes are applied in nature, taking concepts and applying a project-based learning style.”

Perhaps that is part of his, and the school’s, success. “I was working at a prep school. I had come from a formal educational background. It was all about college prep, college placement,” he said. “If I didn’t place a student at a 4-year-school, I was going to be fired.”

Thinking of moving on from such an environment anyway, he interviewed with OCVTS when approached. “I wasn’t sure. I thought, ‘vocational?’”

He described those early interviews as very loose, more like conversations. “Herb Beeber, the Lavallette (school) superintendent; Bob Raymond, who was with the County Student Services – they were a big part.”

Monmouth County already had some success with a similar program, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) in Sandy Hook. So Wnek was impressed when asked where he saw the program’s future.

“Dr. Jean Andrews was very influential in my decision. She asked me, ‘Where do you see the program in 5 to 10 years?’ I told her, ‘The top marine environmental science program in New Jersey.’”

During those first years, it was not so clear they would get there; to begin with, they had no permanent home. They started with classroom space at the vacant former Admiral Farragut Academy in Pine Beach.

“We were there for a few months but it got cold in the winter because the academy was closed,” Wnek said. “It was clear we needed to lease classroom space somewhere else.”

At the time, they were attracting most of their students from Toms River and Manchester so it felt natural to stay in northern Ocean County. Wnek said they had heard there was an empty room in the basement of the Bishop Building, part of the Ocean County Library headquarters in Toms River. The building had been constructed in 1941 as the Toms River Public Library; the basement had been neglected for years.

“We walked in there one August day and there was about an inch of mud,” Wnek said, describing his initial visit during a rainy period. “I said, ‘What do you think?’”

Although they quickly outgrew the available space in the Bishop Building, Wnek said the building was an incredible resource for the rapidly expanding program.

“We had 300 gallons of water in a tank. It was amazing.”

Plus, he inherited the stuffed shark that now graces one of the walls of a lab at MATES.

The limited space available to the early program was aided by the fact the program started as a sharetime program with sending districts. “Toms River and Manchester made the shared time classes honors classes,” Wnek said. Despite that, the shared time made things more challenging. “It became a little more difficult to recruit,” Wnek explained.

It was determined they would have to switch to a full-time curriculum. A decision was also made early on to recruit freshmen for a four-year commitment.

“The district decided to start with freshman; let’s not start with seniors.”

Wnek said 2001 was the first freshman class. “Get them motivated when they are younger.”

From there, it was a short jump to enticing middle school students. “We decided to start a summer program with middle school students.”

MATES Summer Experience

On a recent summer morning, a group of about two and a half dozen middle school students gathered at the MATES building, backpacks stuffed with sunscreen, bug spray, towels, water shoes, lunches: all the stuff needed for some summertime adventure out in nature. Some came because they would be attending MATES in September and wanted to get a feel for what goes on there. Others hoped to be accepted to the school in the future. Still others just thought it would be fun.

All clearly liked science and nature, and weren’t afraid to get a little dirty on their way to experiencing Barnegat Bay and its watershed through a weeklong, interactive experience.

The summer program, like the academy, requires applicants to submit to an acceptance process including a current report card and a letter of recommendation. The program was scheduled over four weeks, with each week alternating between the watershed experience and the bay experience. Participants could sign up for one or two weeks. The daily itineraries included trips to Jenkinson’s Aquarium in Point Pleasant for a behind the scenes tour; fossil shark tooth recovery in Big Brook Park in Monmouth County; and a tour of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine.

And a lot of field work. Kayaking through sedge islands, seining in the bay, water quality tests in multiple county parks. Days started early at the school because there would be lots of miles to travel. Much to do, with too little time.

On this particular day, the students, accompanied by a half-dozen current and former students serving as interns and mentors, were headed to a pair of Ocean County parks to do some seining and explore some of the unique bio habitats found in and around Barnegat Bay.

First stop was Cattus Island Park in Toms River. Led by two science teachers – Michael Haughwout from Bayville (who teaches high school biology at Rumson/Fair Haven High School) and Jillian Wasilewski of Manahawkin (who teaches middle school science in Millstone and is a 2009 graduate of Southern Regional) – the students grabbed seining nets, waders, a couple of five-gallon buckets, a few milk crates, a box of scientific equipment and chemicals and some personal gear to head off down the unpaved road that leads from the parking lot past the nature center, past the site of the Cattus family homestead, and out toward the bay.

Within the first 100 feet or so, Haughwout, clearly in his element, stopped multiple times to point out various plants and creatures: dogsbane, sourgum, bayberry, the seaside dragonlet.

Jack S., an incoming sixth-grader from Manahawkin, explained why he was excited to be going on this experience. “A lot of people spend so much time on video games, indoors. How beautiful it is to be out here, in nature!” he remarked.

Maggie K., an incoming seventh-grader from Jackson who spends much of her summer at her nana’s house in Beach Haven, agreed. “It’s very sad, our generation. Not everyone but…” her voice trailing off.

Rachel Balko of Manahawkin graduated from MATES in 2018 and was one of the returning students to act as an intern. She said the Summer Experience is still a lot of fun for her.

“I went to the camp in 2013. I started volunteering (as an intern) in 2017. Some of the kids are very inquisitive.”

That attitude can be inspiring, she said.

As the group made its way out to the sandy beach at the end of the point, they split into two smaller groups: one would take turns donning the waders and seining in the bay; the other would explore out in the salt marsh.

Wasilewski stayed with the seining group, instructing them in testing with a refractometer to gauge the salinity in the bay water. Others dragged the net along the bottom of the bay, returning with killies and spearing and a number of sea nettles, a stinging type of tiny jellyfish.

Meanwhile, Haughwout led his group out among the salt hay, again dividing them into two groups and telling one to jump on the little islands so the other would recognize that they float. He led them farther on, illustrating the differences between the various grasses found in the salt marsh. He even picked some pickleweed and had the group sample the edible succulent. Maggie, obviously no stranger to the delicacies of the salt marshes, exclaimed, “I love pickleweed!”

Ariana V. of Barnegat and Emma E. of Toms River were quick to strike up a friendship as they each discovered the other was an incoming freshman at MATES. Ariana explained why she came to the Summer Experience.

“I thought it would give me a feel for what I will be doing at MATES. Plus, it’s fun.”

The groups switched tasks, and then returned to the parking lot, everyone sharing the load, carrying the gear. After a break at the nature center (and the welcome air conditioning found therein), the group loaded their gear and themselves onto the bus just in time for lunch while they drove to their next stop: John C. Bartlett Jr. County Park in Berkeley Township.

Though less than 10 miles apart, as the crow flies, the two parks could not have been more different. Where Cattus Island had been still and humid, Bartlett Park was sunny and windy. Even the seemingly ubiquitous jellyfish were absent. After more seining, the group was given a much-deserved break to enjoy swimming in the bay, a simple pastime once much practiced and beloved in these environs but now much less so.

With the sun glistening off the wind-blown chop, Maggie was quick to point out, “This is much better than other camps. You’re out in nature!”

When asked if she would rather learn science in a classroom, even one with a laboratory, or out in the field, Maggie exclaimed, “Oh, definitely outside. I really hope I get to go to MATES!”

MATES 25 Years On

Wnek said this is the 25th year of outreach for MATES. The program has grown without straying too far afield from the original concept.

“We started and maintained a marine and environmental science theme with applied projects and lessons in the field,” Wnek said. “I don’t think we will stray too far, because of us having the field component that places the students right into the local environment.”

Field research is an integral component to the education, according to Wnek.

Biscardi, who has been the principal at MATES for two years, agrees. “We pride ourselves in what we do here,” he said. “There are other schools that have a STEM component, or even research. But we are unique in what we do here. We spend a lot of time in the field.”

Indeed, Project Terrapin, a conservation and education initiative supporting the diamondback terrapin and its habitat through research, is supported by more than 1,000 volunteer hours from MATES students each year.

Wnek said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s support for MATES’ Marine Debris Recovery Project is especially rewarding. The project, funded by a NOAA grant, has MATES students locate, map and retrieve abandoned and lost crab pots from Barnegat Bay.

“We’re on a four-year cycle, so we have waves of students,” Wnek said of the project that has removed thousands of abandoned crab pots from the bay, far exceeding the project’s initial target. “We’re out there in January or February on a boat, getting bycatch, freeing it from the pots. We log it and send reports back to NOAA.”

From that initial freshman class of 15 students (which graduated 10 students), each class grew in size. By the time they moved in to the current building in 2006, they had 30 graduates. This year’s incoming class will have more than 70 students.

The student body is recruited from across the county, according to Wnek. He described the admissions process.

“The school looks at a student’s transcripts and results of the admissions tests. In the past, we used standardized scores. But there have been changes in the testing, and some private schools didn’t need to prescribe to the same tests. So we provide a points value for the transcript and the test that is a value we use for each applicant. There is a minimal score that is necessary to be eligible, and we send an invitation to at least one student from each sending district that has the highest points value from that district. Then we re-rank everyone else on the list, and select the roster for the incoming class that can range from 70-75 incoming freshmen.

“We also provide an opportunity for some entering sophomores if we have room. And that criteria is based on evaluating their performance as freshmen. They may have to take an entrance exam if applying to enter for 2020-2021, if there is an opening.

“There are no quotas. All students in Ocean County are eligible to apply.”

In addition to the test scores and transcripts, an admission essay and letters of recommendation are also required.

“The students are so excited. They sacrifice a lot to be here,” Wnek said. Some students can spend close to an hour being bused from northern Ocean County. While they are encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities at their sending schools, some find after school activities to be challenging, at best. There are some clubs at MATES but no sports teams.

Still, students at MATES are given a solid academic foundation for future growth, according to Wnek.

Ocean County Freeholder Joseph Vicari praised the school. “You walk in to the building and you know it’s an educational center. The school is encouraging the students to reach higher, reach their full potential. Those students are open to tremendous opportunities,” he said.

Still, there are concerns from some quarters about high-achieving students receiving years of support and resources, only to take their talents to a county school.

Such a notion was denied by Craig Henry, superintendent for the Southern Regional School District in Stafford Township. “It doesn’t really impact us,” he said. “Each year, we send on average between 10 and 30 students to the various academies. We encourage every student to go to where they’re comfortable, to find the best educational experience for themselves.”

OCVTS also administers the Performing Arts Academy and the Academy of Law and Public Safety, as well as shared-time programs in applied arts, engineering/computer and design, construction trades, health technologies, service occupations, and transportation technologies, in addition to MATES.

At the beginning of the program, Wnek felt they could adequately recruit students. “We felt, ‘This model could work for you.’ Twenty-five years later, it’s more, ‘This model will work for you.’”

For Wnek, the field research is the most important component for the school, and more importantly, the student success. “The resources OCVTS provides is great but the key part is keeping us applied,” he said.

The opportunities provided at the school provide real world experience, as well. “Working with NOAA and NJ Department of Environmental Protection is invaluable, and not just for us. They use the applied data we provide,” Wnek explained.

Experience like that encourages growth.

“One local municipality asked me, ‘John, how can we get our students involved?’”

Even with all of that, Wnek still feels there is more room for program growth without straying too far from the original mission.

“The program started as an applied marine and environmental science focus. There is a program in the district that is called marine trades, that was at one point called marine technologies. That has a different flavor from what we do. That program is about boat repair, marine electronics, etc.

“Even with more STEM opportunities in the future, there are still foundation courses that the students will take that encompass the theme. So I feel that we can expand the theme and include the other aspects of engineering, math and biotechnology into it.”

And inspiring and educating another generation of students and scholars on the Barnegat Bay.

Reposted from The Sandpaper