SOUTH HADLEY — Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School (PVPA) in South Hadley will begin its biggest production season ever at the end of the month, led by new Theater Director Jennifer Onopa.
Onopa, who recently graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with a Masters of Fine Arts in theater directing, said she was looking for a way to combine her interests and experience in theater and education.
“PVPA has a great reputation in the Valley,” said Onopa. “I’ve never worked in an arts-focused school so I’m interested in collaborating with fellow staff and faculty. I’ve also met a few of the students and am really excited to work with them and their families.”
Onopa has a rich history in youth theater. She worked as a classroom literacy and theater teacher in New York City public high schools for 10 years, in addition to working in the Chicago area on implementing theater programs for elementary schools. Most recently, Onopa taught theater courses at UMass Amherst and led community outreach initiatives, one of which involved her coming to PVPA for a program with theater teacher Jorge Rodriguez.
“Over the years that I’ve worked with this age group, I’ve definitely seen kids’ confidence bloom through exercising their voice in new ways,” said Onopa. “I’m looking forward to working with students on their interpersonal communication. They are growing up with technology, but they need to be fluent in all forms of communication.”
The school will be boosting its technology department with a new computer science course, “Programming and Game Design,” taught by Thom Vreeland, PVPA’s technology director.
“The course will cover the C# programming language and the Unity 3D game engine,” said Vreeland. “Students will learn to code as they progress through the development of several simple game ideas.” Students in grades nine through 12 will be able to take the course as an elective.
Vreeland said there is a strong misconception that all forms of technology are second nature to high school students.
“The ability to interact with a desktop interface, to navigate directory trees, to work with data in spreadsheets and so many other essentials for skilled jobs aren't being instilled by the use of cell phones and tablets,” Vreeland said. “It's important to expand this sort of education and not make assumptions about where our students are at.”
Another advancement in the school’s technology department will involve every seventh grader having a Google Chromebook.
“Families will be providing them where possible,” said Marc Kenen, PVPA’s interim executive director. “The school will provide support for those who cannot afford it.”
Kenen will stay in his role while the board of trustees conducts a search for a permanent executive director, who would start July 1, 2019.
The school has been led by two different directors in the past two academic years. Scott Goldman served as head of school from 2011 until June of 2017. The director hired to take Goldman’s place, George Simpson, was fired in February 2018 after being charged with possession of heroin and methamphetamine in January.
Kenen said that amid the leadership changes, PVPA recovered quickly.
“The school has been around for 23 years and is very resilient and has seen a lot of changes during its history,” Kenen said. “Everyone is very focused on the new school year. I don’t think many people in the school are thinking about what may happen with leadership a year from now.”
The first day of school is Aug. 27.