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And tanks for all the fish Students, teachers, officials mark construction of Marine Academy?s new home in Stafford

By MARTIN DeANGELIS Staff Writer, (609) 272-7237, E-Mail

STAFFORD TOWNSHIP - When Tina Held started teaching at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science in 2001, her classroom fish tank was a 20-gallon trash can and a bucket for changing the water.

So it's fair to say Held is thrilled about the new home planned for MATES, a part of the Ocean County Vocational Technical School District, where she expects the marine-science lab fish tank to be closer to 1,500 gallons and set up with enough professional-quality technology to save the bucket for emergency use only.

The new MATES will be right next door to the Ocean County College's Southern Education Center and Southern Regional High School's sprawling campus. MATES is currently in Toms River, on the vo-tech school's grounds.

And the students, staff and officials who crowded in for Thursday's formal groundbreaking on the 54,000-square-foot, $11.7-million home of the school all sounded excited about the new place - even if it will mean a much longer commute for many of them when the new MATES opens, which is currently scheduled for September of 2006.

One of them is David Geeter, the president of the school's sophomore class and a featured speaker at the ceremony.

Geeter's speech followed those of president of the vo-tech school district's board, Nina Anuario, and district Superintendent William Hoey, Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari and Ocean County College President Jon Larson. The class president got by far the biggest round of applause of all those dignitaries.

Later, after the clapping stopped, the 16-year-old Geeter explained that his school's new home will turn his half-hour trip from Jackson Township into a drive of almost an hour. But he likes the fact that MATES, which has been moving around in Toms River, will have "a home of its own. ... It will show the actual progress our school has been making."

Geeter described some of the personal progress he has made at the school: He and most of his classmates got certified SCUBA divers, he's a captain of the school's Sailing Club, he has taken part in a sea-turtle research project and in several other field-research projects throughout Ocean County.

Plus he's doing well in school, with its focus on marine biology, marine chemistry, aquatic ecology and oceanography - along with all the English and algebra and physics and geometry and Spanish and phys ed and other courses students have to take at more traditional high schools.

Most students seem to be planning post-college careers in marine biology or environmental science, and John Wnek, a teacher who also runs the turtle-research project - when he's not studying for his environmental-science doctorate at Drexel University in Philadelphia - says that if they stick with those plans, they'll be getting into growth industries. But just to be sure, he encourages them to seek out all the internships and job "shadow" programs they can, and that he and other teachers can help them get involved with.

"Those kind of mentoring programs will give them an advantage," Wnek says. "So we encourage them to get involved early and build their resumes. ... There are a lot of jobs open in the environmental field."

Vicari, the leader of a freeholder board that's providing $5.3 million toward the cost of the project, said students in this program have a natural advantage just in living where they do.

"You have the Atlantic Ocean, you have Barnegat Bay and you have the pinelands," he said. "What finer labs could you have?"

The expanded, permanent location will allow many more students to get a MATES education - the school now has just about 90 students, but the new building is supposed to have spots for about 250.

Plus the plans call for the new school to give students a big head start on college, through its affiliation with its neighbor, Ocean County College, and because Richard Stockton College of New Jersey plans to start offering classes and a degree program at the Stafford Township complex, according to Larson, the OCC president.

"I don't know any other place in the state of New Jersey where that kind of seamless process is possible," he said.

To e-mail Martin DeAngelis at The Press:
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