Illustration by staff illustrator Sakura Siegel. Editor Amanda Sanchez contributed to this story.

On a Thursday afternoon, hundreds of County Prep and High Tech high school students received news that none of them wanted to hear: the two institutions were merging their performing arts programs, forcing some students to relocate.

Of those hundreds of students was Marianna Kiniery. But an official written announcement was not sent until the next day, on Friday, where CPHS Principal Barbara Mendolla and HTHS Principal Kathleen Young said in a joint letter to students and parents that “to enhance Career & Technical Education (CTE) within the Hudson County Schools of Technology, County Prep High School/ATD and High Tech High School/ACTE will be coordinating a combined effort to unify our CTE programs.”

Music and audio technology majors are being cut from High Tech and will move to County Prep. Dance majors are being dropped from County Prep and will be moved to High Tech. Freshmen, sophomores and juniors will decide if they want to continue their major and transfer to the designated school or stay at their current campus and change majors.

In simpler terms, County Prep, which is in Jersey City, will be the main campus for music technology majors while High Tech, located in Secaucus, will be the home for dance, theatre arts/drama majors.

Kiniery, a sophomore media and visual arts major, described the decision as unfair and nerve wracking. Almost all of the students are fighting to reverse it. 

“This affects students’ mental health because they are forced to leave the friends, family and home they have come to know,” Kiniery told Slice of Culture.

“The MAT students have an ultimatum by switching their major, going to County [Prep], or going to their hometown high school where they don’t offer what HCST schools offer. It also affects both MAT and Dancing majors’ mental health because of it being so sudden and them having no other choices.”

“MAT students chose to go to High Tech for a reason so we all feel as if they should be able to stay. Same thing goes for the students at County [Prep].”

“When the MAT and Performing arts students got out of their meeting on Thursday 4th period they were all crushed. It broke everyone’s hearts seeing the MAT students break down and cry because they have to leave. It sent some students into having panic and anxiety attacks,” she added.

Kiniery is one of many students fighting to reverse the decision. (Courtesy of Madison Chambers)

The news gained traction after a Change.org petition made rounds through social media and the internet. Kassandra Esparra started the petition and gave a detailed explanation behind it: “…To change our environment for their wellbeing, especially since we didn’t get an opinion or vote on it, is unfair. The students’ voices should matter to Hudson County Schools of Technology.” 

As of Sunday, January 29, it’s gained 1,716 signatures. It’s targeting 2,500 signatures in hope to get picked up by more local news. It’s already been featured on Hudson County View and NJ.com, which would appear in The Jersey Journal newspaper.

HTHS student Ariel Washington started a separate, but similar, petition, obtaining 1,360 signatures as of Sunday. Washington explains in the petition that “the separation of friends and teachers plays a huge part in this situation. Relationships with friends and teachers help to motivate us to do our upmost best… Please take into consideration the students opinion in keeping our school the family it is, and whole.”

Kiniery said the schools don’t understand how crucial music and audio technology students are for the production of shows.

The MAT and Performing Arts major work collaboratively and without the MAT students we have no idea what we’ll do for showcases and performances,” she said. 

“As for the Dancing majors from County [Prep] being moved to High Tech, there are barely enough classrooms and space for the students who already attend High Tech  so no one knows how they will make room with the incoming students from County Prep.”

Seniors wouldn’t be affected, but they won’t “finish out their senior year with their friends, peers and teachers who have been there from the start,” Kiniery added.

One senior who wouldn’t be directly affected by the proposed move is Katrina Rada, a musical theater major at High Tech. Her older sister and High Tech alum, Mikaela, told Slice of Culture that the plans of the change is “honestly sickening.”

[My sister] is really upset for her friends that are in the lower grades. This isn’t the program she grew up wanting to be in,” Mikaela said.

“… I don’t believe the other programs can exist without audio tech. Audio tech is essential for running every department’s show, whether it be running the sound/light boards, stage management, playing in the orchestra etc. It is so important that each department works together to show how dependent art is on [the] community.”

“It gives the kids avenues to understand what path they’d like to take when it comes to audio tech. Whether it be the backstage aspect or performing, this program allows for that freedom to choose and discover.”

“It just seems like they want to isolate it so that it doesn’t thrive and it’s a shame.”

Mikaela Rada, High Tech Class of 2016, described the plans as “honestly sickening.” (Courtesy of Mikaela Rada)

The district offered a “shared-time model” for juniors, which would allow them to pursue their program of study at their new campus while completing the rest of their classes where they’re studying now.

Mikaela, 23, works as a musical theatre artist, which was exactly what she majored in while attending High Tech; she graduated in 2016. She said she did shows every year and even went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest arts festival in Scotland.

“All the things I learned in high school are reasons why I’m working in theatre right now,” she added.

The only thing that County Prep and High Tech’s performing arts program needs is more funds and resources, Mikaela said. She argued that “if they had the kids’ best interest in mind, they would be working to better the program, not phase it out.”

Adam Hassan, who graduated from County Prep in 2017, also emphasized that the program is underfunded, especially at his alma mater.

Adam Hassan, County Prep Class of 2017, is disappointed by the news. (Courtesy of Adam Hassan)

Hassan said he found out the news like any other alumni – through social media. He was disappointed to see what was happening. 

“I think 100% this could’ve been done better,” he added. “[County Prep] is super underfunded in terms of production aspects and the space that we had.” 

Hassan was part of County Prep’s theatre arts program and featured in a number of shows. 

County Prep now features “a music technology wing with a radio broadcasting station, recording booths, instrumental music classroom and control rooms equipped with industry standard technology used by leading recording artists and engineers,” The Jersey Journal reported.

Meanwhile, High Tech has a “professional black box theater, performance auditorium, musical theatre classroom, rehearsal rooms and a 2,500 square feet dance studio with sprung flooring.”

Hassan said County Prep’s performing arts program is underfunded. (Courtesy of Adam Hassan)

But this isn’t just happening in high schools, but colleges too. 

Hassan told Slice of Culture that Rutgers-Newark is in the process of merging with NJIT for their performing arts programs.

“I was very disappointed to see this happening because this is also happening at my college [Rutgers-Newark] and they’re ‘sunsetting’ their program to merge with NJIT,” he added. “I don’t like the decision at all.”

On Sept. 3, 2021, Lillian Ribeiro, who studied Theatre Arts/Speech at Rutgers-Newark, posted a lengthy statement of Rutgers-Newark no longer accepting theatre majors or minors.

“There will not be a degree in theatre at Rutgers University – Newark campus. The one of a kind dual university Rutgers-NJIT Theatre Arts Program will just be done away with and just remain as NJIT Theatre Arts and Technology program,” Ribeiro wrote.

“As a Rutgers theatre alum, I think Dean Mattis is making a HUGE MISTAKE on this one. Obviously, there was NO ONE in those meetings who are a part of our local Newark Arts scene.”

But alumni aren’t the only ones outraged by the reduction of performing arts programs, parents are too.

HTHS why was this even on the agenda? Why would you take it away from HTHS? HTHS has millions of dollars invested in state of the art equipment that Hudson County tax payers have paid for so our children can learn what top producers in the world are using, and our students will be prepared to go out into the world with that knowledge! Both schools should have their own audio tech programs! Do whats best for the students!” someone posted in a Facebook page called, “High Tech HS Parents Page.”

HCST Superintendent Amy Lin-Rodriguez, meanwhile, gave their reasoning behind it.

“What we are doing is consolidating,” Lin-Rodriguez said. “With building of new (music) wing (at the County Prep campus) we have better equipment. We don’t have to try to secure additional funding to get that equipment at the (High Tech) campus up to what that needs to be.”

But Mikaela has hope the plans can get reversed.

It also hasn’t been approved by the board yet, so it was announced by the principal without it being fully settled. Which is why we have a chance in fighting it from being set in stone.”

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