Setting The Stage

Ten years ago, the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School was still very much a dream for its founders. But now, its student body, as well as its reputation for excellence and creativity, is growing. The school, in a new home in South Hadley, is embarking on a capital campaign designed to make the PVPA’s next act as exciting as the first.

Upon an initial walk-though, the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts School looks much like any other high school. Students are hunched over books in classrooms and study halls, listening to iPods in the halls or pausing at the vending machines to talk to their friends.

Soon, though, subtle differences are noticeable. A Spanish class is held in a new theater, adjacent to the stage. A math class is one room over from a course in costume design, where the beginnings of Technicolor creations are fed into sewing machines.

A student on her way to class suddenly, randomly twirls, books in hand – a dancer’s spin to pass the time, or maybe some extra practice for an upcoming quiz.

From his new office on the first floor, Bob Brick, the school’s administrative director, observes all of this with a look of satisfaction. Only one semester into its 10th year and celebrating a new home in South Hadley, where the school recently relocated from Hadley, PVPA, a public charter school, has grown incrementally from its beginnings in 1996.

“Many people still don’t know we exist,” he said.

But the school is the culmination of a long-held dream for Brick. And the combination of PVPA’s move to South Hadley, the occasion of the school’s 10th anniversary, and its consistent success academically is beginning to move the school to center stage in Western Mass., and that’s a move that Brick hopes will help underscore PVPA’s unique mission.

Act One

Brick has been involved since PVPA was just a kernel of an idea – he founded the school along with educational director Ljuba Marsh. Previously, both had long careers in human services, but also in educational innovation – a fact they realized after knowing each other for years.

Brick was a founding member of the Project Ten experimental college at UMass Amherst in 1968, an attempt at revolutionizing the college experience. Similarly, Marsh has been involved with educational reform for more than 40 years, working with a number of institutions with a focus on academic and artistic integration.

“It had always been my dream to found a school that valued the performing arts, and it turned out it had always been a dream of Ljuba’s as well,” Brick said. “We never knew that about each other. But once we did, the process began to move very quickly.”

Coinciding with the Mass. Educational Reform movement, that process began with a call to the State Department of Education, initial approval, and that first class of freshmen in 1996, which included Brick’s daughter, now enrolled in medical school.

The PVPA now boasts a student body of about 400 in both middle school and high school, 40 full-time faculty members, and an additional 60 or so part-time faculty members and administrative staff. And Brick said he doesn’t want to see the school’s enrollment numbers grow too much more – that would affect the personal attention and small classes that are central to the school’s mission. But this year, the school received applications from more than four times the students it can accommodate – 300, with only 70 open slots available.

No auditions are necessary for admittance to the school – students are accepted based on a lottery system — but Brick says the large number of applications adds to the credibility of PVPA, and further bunks any notion that performing arts-based schools are heavy on creativity, but soft on academics.

In actuality, PVPA’s curriculum is one of the most stringent in the state, requiring students to attend classes for eight hours a day. Five of those hours are reserved for traditional, academic courses, and the remainder of the day is devoted to a variety of courses in performing arts, ranging from dance, theatre, and music to costume or set design.

“Everyone has to do eight credit hours per semester, four years of language, three years of lab sciences, and three consecutive years of a foreign language,” Brick explained. “In addition to performing arts requirements in their chosen concentration, students must also complete an internship and hours of community service. That’s not to mention the commute many of our students have.”

High school and middle school students from across the state are welcome to apply to PVPA, although Brick said special priority is given to those living in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Still, even across Western Mass., the school’s reach is extensive – the current student body hails from 60 cities and towns from east of Worcester to the Berkshires. Many commute to school an hour each way.

“They want to be here,” Brick said. “They’re a happy group of students, and many are in the beginnings of very strong careers in the performing arts.”

And the academic model at PVPA, which puts emphasis on creative, critical thinking is working, he noted.

“We value the individual needs of every student,” said Brick, “both academically and creatively. We work toward goals with the understanding that without the arts, most people aren’t complete … and our kids get into great colleges, and study both the performing arts as well as more traditional subjects. Our MCAS scores are some of the highest in the state.

“High school can be a very negative experience for people who are different,” he continued, shifting his focus from the academic success of the PVPA to the social aspects of high school life. “At some public schools, for instance, male dancers get shoved in lockers. Here, they’re gods. And everyone has something that makes them special, and that is appreciated.”

Set Design

Over the past decade, the school has existed at varying levels in terms of both its physical and academic presence in Western Mass. Brick explained that the school once offered only the ninth grade, sending students to different public or private schools for the remainder of their education. PVPA soon expanded, however, to include a full four-year curriculum in 2000 (the seventh and eighth grades were added in 2004) and to hold classes within several historic buildings on Route 9 in Hadley.

But Brick said the school was quickly outgrowing its facilities, and plans have been in motion for some time to relocate the school to a larger, more-consolidated location.

“Students had to walk 15 minutes sometimes to get to classes,” he explained of PVPA’s former digs. “They were rushing from building to building, crossing Route 9 … it could be awful, especially in the winter.”

Brick said the PVPA actually made five different attempts to relocate, conducting feasibility studies at three potential sites and actually purchasing 20 acres of land in Hadley with the hope of developing it at a later date – that land is still owned by PVPA, and Brick said the school is now planning to sell it.

None of the first four locations were suitable for a school, but a fifth option in South Hadley, situated on a hill on Mulligan Drive adjacent to the Ledges Golf Club, proved to be more promising. The property in which the school now operates had been vacant for years, having once served as a research and development facility for a chemical engineering firm, Intelicoat Technologies (formerly Rexham Graphics).

“It had been sitting around for five years, empty,” said Brick. “I don’t know exactly why … I can only surmise that the building hadn’t been right for a new business because it’s quirky – it’s only suited for certain uses, it’s big, and it’s sort of hidden up here.

“But for a charter school with students from all over the region, it’s perfect,” he added. “We’re four miles from I-91, there’s plenty of space that can be converted for specialty uses, parking, and plenty of land surrounding us. We saw very early on that this could work.”

The building and the land it occupies were purchased from Joe Marois, president of Marois Construction, in 2005. After examining the building and its potential for housing a performing arts school, Brick said PVPA soon began the process of purchasing the site from Marois and hiring his firm to renovate it – a $4.5 million endeavor.

“We used funds from some long-term fundraising we had been involved with, and a tax-exempt loan from MassDevelopment,” said Brick, adding that the renovation of the building was extensive. “In the end, we renovated about 98% of this building – we gutted it, added a third floor, installed new electric and plumbing systems, and an elevator.”

In actuality, the school’s new home encompasses less area than the former location in Hadley – about 50,000 square feet. But Brick said the space is better suited for academic use, and the students are, for the first time, under one roof.

“There is much more usable space,” he said. “We have three dance studios with sprung floors, a theatre, two sound studios, insulated rooms for music classes, a set design and costume shop, and a chemistry lab, all brand new and all in one building. It’s a huge improvement.”

And Brick said they’re not done, either. The school is currently in the middle of a capital campaign, raising money for a new, 450-seat theater at the school. Brick said he hopes to break ground on the project within the next two years, with the help of continued support from area organizations, businesses, and individuals.

He said the school has benefited from the financial help of what he terms “a few angels,” but added that there is still a need to increase the school’s visibility within the region’s business community, in order to continue to develop both the school itself and its unique curriculum.

He explained that the PVPA model is so different from most, it can cause some confusion – many people don’t realize that the school is a six-year, academic middle and high school that is open to any student with an interest in the performing arts. Fewer realize that the school has an exceedingly young alumni base that is, for the most part, still unprepared to give back substantially to their alma mater, unlike more-established specialty schools, public or private. After only 10 years in existence and only six including graduating classes, most PVPA alumni are still in college or starting their first jobs.

It has become part of Brick’s general duties to market the school as well as its needs, speaking to professional organizations such as rotary clubs regularly.

“It’s one of the most difficult needs we have to translate – that of the need for private support, even though we are a public school,” said Brick. “It’s similar to the challenges that all public schools face – yes, we receive support from the government. But it doesn’t cover everything, especially with the extended curriculum. We can use that support.”

Fame Seekers…

As the bell rings at PVPA and students begin to filter into the halls, Brick pauses to listen to the voices in the hall.

There’s the usual chatter, but it’s punctuated by bits of song, excited gossip about upcoming auditions, and the swinging whoosh of the theater door … little bursts of creativity, further cementing Brick’s dream in reality.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]