Thirty Years and Going Strong! 7

Orange County School of the Arts is a national model

Article | Donna Bunce

The Background

Orange County School of the Arts Founder/Executive Director/President Ralph Opacic grew up in Annandale, Virginia, one of three children of a Marine and a stay-at-home mother. It didn’t take his parents long to realize that their son was musically talented. At age three he sat down at the piano and played the rest of the morning.

“Mother always told me it was in my blood,” Opacic says.

He attended Lake Braddock Secondary High School, renowned for its music program, where he sang in the school choir and played piano and trumpet.

Because Frank Pooler was well known in the choral music world and was Director of Choral Studies at Cal State Long Beach, where he launched Karen and Richard Carpenter’s careers, Opacic chose the school and earned his BA in Music in 1981, working his way through school has the tenor soloist at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. Soon, a choral music job at Los Alamitos High School beckoned and within three years, the program went from 30 to 300 students under his guidance.

“That experience was the impetus for creating OCSA,” Opacic says.

His dream was to take young people passionate about the arts and put them together with professional working artists in a world-class art school offering a pathway to college and a career in the arts.

The History

Acquiring a $250,000 state specialty school grant, which Opacic co-wrote, and using an old multi-purpose room on the Los Alamitos campus, Orange County High School of the Arts (changed to Orange County School of the Arts in 2012 to reflect its longtime service to middle school students) was launched September, 1987. Opening with 125 students, four arts conservatories were offered with an operating budget of $190,000.

By 1996, with the school bursting its seams with 470 students, Los Alamitos Unified School District developed plans to build OCSA its own campus. About the same time the Los Alamitos City Council blocked construction in 1999, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido called Opacic and invited OCSA to relocate to Santa Ana under the sponsorship of the Santa Ana Unified School District. Assisting the school by providing $2 million in redevelopment funds and the guidance of developer Mike Harrah, a variety of commercial spaces, including a bank building, office building, furniture store and church, were renovated for the school.

OCSA opened its doors in Santa Ana in 2000, offering unparalleled academic and arts instruction in nine arts conservatories to 800 students, grades 7-12, with a total operating budget of $6.5 million.

Over the next 16 years, OCSA continued to acquire neighborhood properties for the school and currently serves more than 2,100 culturally diverse and gifted students from 125 cities and five counties throughout Southern California. A huge boost came in 2015, when OCSA opened a new $16.2 million 60,000 square-foot instructional center housing The Marybelle Musco Dance Center, The Hal and Jeanette Segerstrom Family Music Center and The Argyros Science Center.

The school runs on a $26 million operating budget, with the State of California funding an ADA (average daily attendance) allocation. As a public charter school, OCSA is tuition-free but donation dependent, relying on the generosity of the private sector to fund the additional $8.5 million annual cost of the arts conservatories, scholarship and community programs, as well as the additional costs of equipment facility maintenance and capital property acquisition.

OCSA’s Academic and Arts Training

OCSA provides a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, with students attending  approximately five hours of academic classes in addition to three hours of daily arts instruction. The school has one of the highest ranked academic programs in Orange County, is ranked as one of the top three public high schools in Orange County, in the top 3% in California, and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

The school offers pre-professional training in 14 arts conservatories, including acting, classical & contemporary dance, classical voice, commercial dance, creative writing, culinary arts & hospitality, digital media, film & television, integrated arts, instrumental music, international dance, musical theatre, production & design, and visual arts. The conservatory learning experiences include classes taught by highly-trained, full-time faculty and working professional artists, in addition to guest artists, university faculty and industry leaders, who share their expertise through residencies, master classes, demonstrations, lectures and performances. A smattering include dancer/choreographer Debbie Allen, director and filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, pianist Lang Lang, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and actress/producer Cathy Rigby.

Successful alumni who have gone on to perform on Broadway and study at the nation’s top universities and arts conservatories have returned to OCSA for lectures and performances.

“They feel like this is their home and they want to pay it forward, and having them here makes the possibility of the kids succeeding more real,” Opacic says.

Some of them include Susan Egan (in OCSA’s first graduating class and the original Belle in Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast”), Matthew Morrison (Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe-nominated actor), Krysta Rodriguez (starred in Broadway’s “Addams Family Musical”), Lindsay Mendez (Elphaba in “Wicked” on Broadway), Brett Egan (DeVos Institute of Arts Management President), Dante Basco (Rufio in “Hook”), and Justice Smith (star of Netflix’ “The Get Down” and named on Forbes’ 2017 Top 30 Under 30 Hollywood list).

OCSA also serves the community through student arts workshops for disadvantaged Santa Ana children, grades 4-6, performances and activities for 50,000 underserved children and adults, and faculty-taught art and academic enrichment classes for hundreds of children and adults.

Lastly, the students participate in more than 120 performances, presentations and exhibitions each year, as well as field trips and tours to renowned venues to see professional productions, exhibitions and regional and national arts festivals.

How It Works

The school maintains three fundraising arms, each a separate nonprofit organization.

“We’ve created a strong culture of giving and support from our greater community, including our Board of Trustees, our Foundation’s Board of Directors and its Advisory Board, our Strategic Partners, our Community Partners and our parent community and alumni,” Opacic says.

Thirtieth Anniversary Tribute

OCSA has created a Master Artist Series in celebration of its 30th anniversary. Students study with renowned artists, including jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, violinist Joshua Bell, opera star Deborah Voigt, actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith, and wheel-chair bound Broadway actress Ali Stroker.

Looking Ahead

Opacic can hardly believe it’s been 30 years since it all began. Suffice it to say, this impassioned man is not done. A second campus for 1,200 students is opening this year in San Gabriel Valley and a third is slated to open in Oceanside in 2019. Future campuses are being considered in the South Bay, San Francisco, San Fernando Valley and San Jose.

The gifted entrepreneur lauds his wife Sherri Opacic, who he met while both of them were earning doctorates in education at USC, for her constant support.

Ralph also credits a talented and dedicated OCSA faculty and staff.

“We’ve produced a unique educational experience for students looking for an arts-focused education,” he says. “Arguably, we’re one of the finest arts schools in the country.”

“We’ve produced a unique 
educational experience for students looking for an arts-focused education. Arguably, we’re one of the finest arts schools in the country.”
 – OCSA Founder/Executive Director Ralph Opacic

With all the OCSA awards and accolades, Ralph can be assured of that.