By Jessica Oates
In June 2008, Robbinsville High School’s first senior class graduated. More than four years later, two members of this trailblazing class have yet again marked new territory.
Taylor Cortina and Brian Williams have returned to the district as teachers and as the leaders of the Pond Road Middle School theater program. They both say they couldn’t imagine being anywhere but their hometown.
Cortina—the Pond Road theater program’s performance director—and Williams—the music director—have been involved in the district’s performing arts program since 6th grade, participating in every musical production throughout middle school and high school.
Cortina first discovered her love for teaching through dance. A student of dance since age 3, she was offered the opportunity to teach hip hop classes at Talk of the Town, the Hamilton dance studio she attended for many years. For years she had enjoyed dancing competitively through the studio, and she was excited to be asked back. Cortina graduated last May with her bachelor’s degree in secondary education and English from Rider University, where she was also a member of the dance team.
She said her middle school teachers were major influences in her decision to become an educator.
“They were so passionate about what they were teaching us,” Cortina said. “It felt like there was always someone there for us.”
In college, Cortina worked as a student teacher at Pond Middle School, an experience that confirmed for her that she was on the right career path.
“I think my personality fits a middle school setting,” she said. “Kids in middle school are at an age where you can have an intellectual conversation with them, but they are still kids.”
Williams, who also graduated last May from Rider University, and Cortina kept in touch over the years. When Williams began working on the middle school performance, he encouraged Cortina to come on board as director. Though most of Cortina’s experience involved dance and choreography, she accepted the offer and began working with Williams and choreographer Kim Brudner.
“I remembered working on performances with [Cortina] back in high school,” Williams said. “When the director role opened up, it became obvious to me that we would make a great team. We are laid back, and we have fun.”
Faced with the challenge of keeping the township’s consistently stellar performances up to snuff, Williams, Cortina and Brudner devised a schedule by which they run each practice.
“The kids were so eager to learn, and so energetic, that we found ourselves ahead of schedule,” Williams said.
Brudner, a fourth grade teacher in Robbinsville, said the pair of returning Ravens may have something to do with that.
“[They] are so warm and welcoming, and willing to teach. Their hearts are in Robbinsville and for this program, and Robbinsville would be at a loss if they had gone anywhere else.”
Indeed, Cortina, who currently works as a substitute teacher at the middle school, was offered a full-time role in another district. Committed to her work on the Pond School performance, she rejected the offer in hopes that a permanent position in her home town opens up soon.
“We find ourselves reminiscing about ‘when we were here,’” Cortina said. “It is a great feeling to be on the other side.”
Williams said that it is awesome to be back, walking the halls of their old school again.
“It’s great working with people that you looked up to when you were a student,” he said. “We find a lot of support for what we are doing.”
Williams remembers a specific choir rehearsal when he was as a student where he was called in front of the class to teach solfège. Williams took on a lot of responsibility as a choir member, leading class whenever the director was out, and helping the base section learn and polish their parts.
“I took any opportunity I could to teach,” he said.
For months, Cortina and Williams have been preparing their students for the Pond Middle School performance of “High School Musical,” which was scheduled for Feb. 22–24 at Robbinsville High School. After months of practice in the media room at the middle school, the theater group travels to the high school to rehearse on stage. Williams said “High School Musical” is a dance intensive performance. It is a lot of work, but he said the students are dedicated, and they will be prepared for a successful high school theater career.
“The theater program in Robbinsville has always been excellent,” Williams said. “The community looks forward to these performances, and the children have put in a lot of work.”
And now the students have two role models who have been exactly where they are.