TOMS RIVER – They arrived by bus and car and entered with excitement for their first day of class in the brand new Ocean County Vocational Technical School Performing Arts Academy building.
It wasn’t just the students that were excited about the state-of-the-art facility but administrators, staff, OCVTS Board of Education members and elected officials.
The building is on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River. It provides a showcase for those seeking careers in several areas of the performing arts. It also provides college credits and a modern, safe environment that Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari proudly said equals anything available in the northern part of the state.
“I’ve been in education as a teacher, principal and superintendent for 40 years and this is remarkable. It is state of the art and students will feel inspired to be attending class here,” Vicari said.
Vicari couldn’t wait for the students to arrive or staff and administrators to provide a tour. He decided to explore the hallways, classrooms, bathrooms, elevator and even furnace room to get a first look at the new building.
The facility’s creation was sparked by the need to relocate from Hanger 1 at Joint Base Lakehurst, which due to security reasons made the civilian school facility difficult to access.
The project has a 20-year bond for $27 million. Vicari said that 40% of the cost of the new facility was provided by the state while the county’s portion was $8 million. Another $8 million was provided by the Jay and Linda Grunin Foundation.
“It was a wonderful partnership between Ocean County College as we had the land here, the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders and many more partnerships,” Vicari said.
“Everything from the dressing rooms, the chemistry labs to the white boards used in the classrooms are all modern. The acoustics of the recording studios are unbelievable,” Vicari said. He noted that the design also ensured security and fire safety standards.
According to OCVTS Superintendent Karen Homiek, who served as principal of the academy for 14 years prior to becoming superintendent, 279 students currently attend classes in the facility in a 9-12th grade program. The students are from various communities across Ocean County and must go through an application, testing and audition process.
“The building is 57,000 square feet and three stories high. We are very excited about its opening today. Former OCVTS Superintendent William Hoey helped set this into motion. He got the wheels in motion for this and we finished up. Our staff is totally dedicated and they were anxious to start working here today,” Homiek said. Hoey passed away last year.
Homiek said the academy, which is one of three full-time academies initiated by the OCVTS District, is a fairly young program which started in September 2001 at the Hangar 1 site.
“Since that time, we have grown by leaps and bounds, both academically and culturally, raising the level of expectations and challenging our students to a high degree of success. Our administration and instructors nurture an intimate setting which provides opportunities to develop these exceptional relationships. Families are encouraged to participate and become an integral part of the decision-making processes on topics affecting their children’s education. Mutual respect, fairness and cooperation pervade all aspects of our school,” Homiek said.
“In the past 15 years the Performing Arts Academy has been nominated and recognized numerous times for our students’ and instructors’ talents, professionalism and performances by prestigious groups such as: Montclair State University (Theatre Night Awards), Ocean Arts (organization that celebrates high school theatre), Paper Mill Playhouse (Rising Stars) and Two River Theatre (Metro Scholar program),” she said.
“In August 2012, we were acknowledged by New Jersey Monthly Magazine as a top vocational high school. The following September we received a plaque from Inside New Jersey for being a ‘NJ Top Performing High School.’ In addition, Jerseycan recognized us as “Top 10 School,” Homiek said.
OCVTS Board President Nina Anuario said the new building opened earlier than anticipated. “We were expecting the building to be finished in May and that classes would start in September. This facility can also be used for other classes at night so it serves two purposes.”
Anuario credited the hard work of OCVTS Director of Facilities Edward Crawford for making the day’s opening a reality. Crawford was busy looking over the building during the morning.
Homiek said while most high school programs require a 120-credit requirement to graduate, “we have a minimum 162 credits.”
“Students will save on the cost of 15 to 30 college credits which adds up,” Vicari added. “This is STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) and it provides an education that is competitive with other schools. When I was living in Jersey City, they didn’t have schools like this.”
Nineteen buses transport students from around the 33 municipalities of Ocean County to the facility. Vicari noted that the new operation did not require any additional cost in so far as its location at the college.
“These students are excited to be here. This is a landmark day for OCVTS,” Academy Principal Christine Santasieri said. “We have a staff of 35 to 40 people and 279 students. It has been a long time coming but it received a lot of dedication and hard work went into making this all happen.”
Vicari said the programs of the new facility provides an equal opportunity for students and recognizes them as an individual.
Juniors Ethan Wickes of Toms River South High School and Steve Riccobono of Toms River North were getting used to their new surroundings. Both are seeking careers in audio engineering.
“This is very cool,” Wickes said looking around the hallway and at the classrooms. “The four-year programs here include audio engineering, vocals, dance and acting.”
“I’m interested in going into music production,” Riccobono said.
“I’d like to go into studio recording,” Wickes said.
School Counselor Sandy Stout was excited about starting her first day at the facility not only for its ultra-modern look but it also meant a shorter commute for the Toms River resident. “The students are so excited today and they are in awe of this building.”
Vicari pondered the future of other county education projects noting that the county owns land behind the college campus. “We have five sites we could build on and four more buildings that could be built.