A surprise announcement by the Hudson County Schools of Technology administration has left dance professionals, instructors, and students in Jersey City reeling, concerned about the loss of a vibrant, diverse dance program that is interconnected with the city’s arts scene.
Administrators on Jan. 21 announced a plan to remove the dance (and theater) programs from Jersey City’s County Prep High School in the 2022-23 school year, leaving them in High Tech High School in Secaucus only. Similarly, the music technology program that currently exists at both schools would be removed from High Tech and merged into that at County Prep.
Eighty-eight students will be affected as of the 2022–23 school year: 37 students majoring in music/audio technology, 25 students majoring in dance, and 26 students concentrating in theater.
By way of explanation, Amy Lin-Rodriguez, superintendent of Hudson County Schools of Technology, said:
“As the County’s Career and Technical Education vocational school district, it is our obligation to offer a more concentrated program of study for our talented students by combining our district resources and faculty. This specialized enhancement will ensure that all of our students and faculty have access to state-of-the-art studios, equipment, and technology. We are committed to working closely with our CTE Advisory Committees, staff, students, and their families to ensure this transition is a smooth one that minimizes disruptions while enhancing these CTE programs – benefitting our students’ overall learning experience.”
Nevertheless, critics of the change believe it will have a disproportionately negative effect on people of color and those with fewer resources in our society.
Both schools are part of Hudson County Schools of Technology, but Hudson County Prep is located in Jersey City, where the population is more than 22 percent Black. Secaucus has a 4 percent Black population.
County Prep is 52 percent economically disadvantaged, while High Tech High is 33 percent, according to Charles Kessler, co-founder of the Jersey City Studio Tour, Pro Arts and Cathedral Arts.
The leadership of the schools does not appear to view the two communities in isolation though. “Our philosophy maintains that all of our schools and students are part of the Hudson County Schools of Technology family,” said High Tech High School Principal Kathy Young via email.
Kessler told Jersey City Times the change to the 22-year-old dance program was “presented as a done deal without any feedback from teachers, students, parents, or the public.”
Some students, alumni, instructors, and renowned dancers are asking for the decision to be reversed, stating that the program’s home in Jersey City is what makes it strong and unique.
“The dance program at County Prep is one of the pride and joys of the dance community in Jersey City. Ending this program would mean the loss of quality dance education for the students of this city and the loss of a vital dance residency program for professional companies in the area,” said Kyle Marshall, a 2018 New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Jury Award recipient and New Jersey State Council of the Arts Fellow.
Marshall is among a group of 83 dance professionals, including Carolyn Dorfman, Paul H. McRae, Dr. Barbaraw Bashaw, and Dance NJ leaders Erin Carlisle Norton and Meg Regan, who signed an open letter advocating for the reversal of the decision.
“The rich network of students, alumni, professional artists, and place-based connections in Jersey City has been built over the program’s 20 years. This knowledge and network cannot simply be relocated to Secaucus. Merging the programs would require students to commute nearly an hour on public transportation out of their city instead of continuing to receive access to dance education in their neighborhood.”
County Prep’s CHIRP (Choreographer in Residence Program) brings local established artists to the school each semester. And County Prep dancers have performed locally at venues such as Your Move, DFTAges and SMUSH Gallery, according to the open letter.
Program alum and signatory Amanda Abdelaal said County Prep’s program “has become a safe space for many, and taking it away and moving it will not benefit anyone. High Tech and County Prep dance have two fundamentally different programs that accommodate different students.”
A student petition to stop the merger of County Prep’s and High Tech’s Performing Arts Programs has garnered nearly 1,750 signatures.
Meagan Woods, a choreographer, performer, writer, and costume designer who has been teaching at County Prep since 2011, says she is devastated by the prospect of the consolidation and determined to fight for the dance program to stay in Jersey City.
“I’ve seen students find their value and their sense of self through dance,” Woods said. “Through these programs that we’ve built, for instance, the dance company, after school training, and the rigor of the program itself, they’ve gone on to be professionals in the field.”
Woods is also concerned about the after-school dance program at County Prep, a program that currently offers free training to anyone in the school who wants to study dance, regardless of his or her major.
“If we want our dancers to be invested in after-school programs, how are they getting home? How are they getting to their part time jobs?” Woods said. “I’ve had students tell me they’re going to have to choose between the dance program that they want to be part of and being able to keep working on their job, and they shouldn’t have to make those choices.”
Although the Hudson County Schools of Technology administration made access to better facilities a large part of its rationale to consolidate programs, the signers of the open letter note County Prep “offers raked audience seating, a sizable performance space, marley [special dance] floors, adjustable wings and backdrops, projection capabilities, a sound booth, light grid, and more.”
Arts advocates plan to speak up at the next Hudson County School Board Caucus Meeting to be held on Thursday, Feb. 17 in Secaucus.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 60 percent of students at County Prep and 36 percent of students at High Tech are economically disadvantaged.