New Jersey Republican gubernatorial nominee Christopher J. Christie brought his school-choice plan to Camden yesterday, speaking at a second-chance high school's graduation and telling the students to help troubled friends get an education.

"Grab them by the hands and look them in the eye and tell them, 'Look at me. I've been where you've been,'" he told the 200 students from the Community Educational Resource Network (CERN) at Rutgers-Camden. The best way to help, he said, was to tell them the truth of "how hard it was to get here and how great it feels today."

CERN is a home-school program held at Bethel United Methodist Church for students who left the city's public schools. Christie used that as a background for his call for vouchers in failing school districts. He would grant vouchers for students to go to private schools in their districts or public schools in other districts that accept voucher students.

While the idea of vouchers has been discussed in New Jersey, it's never been made into law.

Christie said although vouchers might save money, his primary reason for supporting a voucher system would be to give students alternatives.

"Our plan gives these people hope," Christie said after the graduation ceremony. "I saw the joy on those faces, the sense of accomplishment and achievement they have. Why should there be any child in the state who is denied that because of where they live?"

One of those students, Nathalia Fontanez, 17 years old and seven months pregnant, tearfully addressed the group, saying she dropped out of high school and "made bad choices" but ultimately wound up at CERN.

"We were nothing, letting people put us down," she said. "But look at us now. Who's wearing the cap and gown?"

Fontanez said she plans to attend community college.

Democratic Gov. Corzine does not support vouchers but has said he would like to see more charter or alternative schools in poor districts.

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.