When the lunch bell rings at Ocean City High, sending hundreds of students spilling into the hallways for a free period, principal Matthew Jamison is at his busiest.
Jamison has made lunch a special time in the sprawling school in Cape May County with more than 1,200 students. After three class periods, the entire school takes a 55-minute break and students are free to do almost whatever they want — eat in the cafeteria, socialize in a nook, hang out in the gym or television studio, or get in extra study time.
It is a signature program for Jamison, a longtime educator who has been principal since 2007. Colleagues and students say it is that kind of thinking outside of the box that makes Jamison a favorite in the small, close-knit district at the Jersey Shore that enrolls students from Ocean City, Sea Isle, Upper Township, Longport, and Corbin City.
Jamison was recently recognized in Washington, D.C., as the New Jersey Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. He was awarded a $7,000 cash prize that he plans to use for technology for the school's newly developed Holocaust/Genocide Studies course.
"I think he's great," said math teacher Samantha Dimatteo. "He keeps us on the ball."
In less than a year, the district has captured three coveted top education honors. Ocean City is also home to the 2018 Superintendent of the Year, Kathleen Taylor, who was selected by the New Jersey Association for School Administrators, and American Sign Language teacher Amy Andersen was the state's Teacher of the Year for the 2017-18 school year.
"We work hard, but we work hard as a system," Taylor said during a recent interview. "Every day we have to be the best we can be."
Taylor, 67, who began her career as a social studies teacher in Norristown, has been leading the district since 2006. She previously was superintendent in the Haverford School District and an assistant superintendent in Sea Isle City schools. She encouraged Ocean City to embrace STEM initiatives and piloted a state program that changed how teachers are evaluated.
Ocean City, a resort community of about 11,000 residents, has traditionally been best known for its beaches and boardwalks. The school district, which enrolls about 2,200 students in pre-K through 12th grade, has seen its academic star rise. This year, it attracted about 200 choice students under a state program that allows students to attend schools outside of their neighborhood.
The district ranks highly in preparing students for college and career readiness and has a 95 percent graduation rate, although it lags slightly behind the state average in student proficiency on state standardized test scores. Newsweek recently rated the high school as one of the top 1,000 public high schools in the country.
Ethan Hartley,16, a sophomore, said he was happy when his family moved to Ocean City two years ago. The aspiring photographer previously attended five schools in nearby towns.
"Out of all the schools, this is definitely the best, by far," Hartley said. "I really don't want to leave. I love my principal."
On a busy morning last week, Jamison left his office to check on students during the lunch period. He instituted the idea about six years ago to offer students a respite from academics. He greeted a group of Key Club members who posed for a photo for a UNICEF fund-raiser. Around the school, students staked out their favorite spots to hang out.
"It looks a little chaotic, but it's not," Jamison said with a smile. As he walked the hallways, Jamison stopped to gently reprimand a girl stretched out on the floor in a hallway to sit up. "We still have some resemblance of a schoolhouse."
Students say they enjoy the unstructured time and a rotating schedule. Students take six classes instead of eight a day, giving them longer classroom periods. Encouraging messages are posted around the school. One by C.S. Lewis reads: "You can't go back and change the beginning. … But you can start where you are & change the ending."
"He's giving us a lot of freedom," said Maya Swift, a sophomore. "It allows us time to study and do homework. We can also relax."
Jamison, 52, graduated from the school in 1984. He became the principal in 2007 after administrative stints in Pittsgrove Township in Salem County, Atlantic City, and Linwood school systems.
Like Jamison, Taylor and Andersen have helped shape the landscape and culture in Ocean City and captured the attention of educators around the country. All three have worked together in the district for more than a decade and credit that for their success.
"Someone asked what do you have going on in Ocean City. It's the salt air," Taylor quipped.
Several years ago, Taylor set up a wellness center in the high school after a student suicide in 2014 and another one the following year. Today, about 25 students visit the center daily, where they can seek mental-health counseling, do yoga, relax, or have lunch, she said.
"I felt that we needed something more," Taylor said. The school has seen a decline in the number of students who spend time out of class or get home instruction due to anxiety, she said.
Andersen heads the American Sign Language program she started in 2004 with 42 hearing students; today it enrolls 176 students. Ocean City is among only about 33 districts statewide that offer the course as a world language.
The district plans to expand the sign language program next year, adding another teacher, an AP class, and creating an American Sign Language Academy, another program offering under school choice, Taylor said. About 20 staffers in the elementary school are learning sign language after school and a recently hired kindergarten teacher who is deaf is teaching her students how to sign. Eventually, the district plans to enroll deaf students, she said.
In April, Andersen, 46, was among four finalists for National Teacher of the Year. It was the first time since 1972 that a New Jersey educator had been considered. She took a six-month sabbatical traveling, providing professional development to other teachers and attending workshops. She also worked with the state Department of Education on a policy project to expand services to deaf and hearing-impaired infants and toddlers.
She returned to the classroom in September with nearly 50 more students than she had last year. Former students have interpreted for former first lady Michelle Obama and Madonna.
"I missed her teaching habits and her positive attitude in the classroom," said Sarah Whilden,18, a senior. "I just like having her around again."
For a lesson for her third-year class, Andersen shared an exercise with students that she learned during her training that was modeled after "Humans of New York," stories of people on the streets of New York City. She paired students who were given a few minutes to interview each other verbally and then switch using only sign language to communicate. The goal was to get students to open up and learn about their classmates.
"I love it. I'm back home," Andersen said. "It's really what fills me up every day."