After 11 years of discussion and two years of construction, Pioneer Valley High School's long-awaited Performing Arts Center opened to the public Thursday morning, a week before "School of Rock" will premiere.

"We're excited. There's been a lot of anticipation surrounding the grand opening," Principal Shandra Herrerra said. "Students have been busy preparing for their production of 'School of Rock' and it's very exciting to see everything they're working with in action."

Completed after roughly 13 years, the $10.9 million theater seats approximately 300 and will provide a permanent space for students to rehearse and perform. With nearly 16,500 square feet of space, the facility provides three 960-square-foot classrooms, a 1,132-square-foot main stage, an array of 86 stage lights and professional-grade acoustics.

Shawnah VanGronigen was hired to teach at Santa Maria High School in 2001, and moved to Pioneer Valley when it opened in 2004. After the project was first floated in 2004, she and several generations of drama and performing arts students have eagerly awaited the completion of the new theater facility.

"For the drama department and all other performing arts groups on our campus, it means we don't have to go off campus to perform," VanGronigen said. "We won't have to set up in a classroom, gym or cafeteria -- we have a home now."

According to VanGronigen, the size and space available to the drama department will allow them to undertake larger and more ambitious productions.

"If you do plays in a classroom, you have to do smaller, more intimate productions," she said. "When we did 'Diary of Anne Frank' in a classroom, we only had 12 students in a play. Now, we have 50 students in the cast and crew. With this new stage, instead of doing a play with a dozen kids, you can scale up for a big production."

Augustin Camacho, "School of Rock" stage manager, said he had been interested in being involved with the production since it was first announced. Now a senior, Camacho said he's excited to finally be able to work with the various performers and crew members on the new stage.

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"We're able to do a lot more with the space," he said, explaining different stage setups and props they'll be utilizing during the production. Between scenes, Camacho and his crew will transform the stage with instruments, tables, chairs and desks that set the scene.

Administrators tout the theater as an example of a 21st-century learning environment and believe it will help prepare students for life outside of the classroom.

"People think of performing as students onstage, but all the students in the background make that happen," VanGronigen said. "When we finish learning, students will know how to run the sound, lighting, work in the catwalks. These are all marketable skills for college or employment."

With the first performance set for next Thursday, VanGronigen said she is both excited and anxious for opening night in their new home. 

"The students have been pretty committed because they know how important it is," she said. "I'm thrilled for opening night but pretty nervous."

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.