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Orange County School of the Arts comes to the San Gabriel Valley

By Cuyler Gibbons    Images: Courtesy of OCSA

“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.”—Barack Obama

The idea that the arts should be more than an after-school thought, but instead a vital piece of every child’s curriculum, is still far from universally accepted. Numerous national studies from institutions as diverse as Johns Hopkins University, the Guggenheim Foundation, RAND Corp., and the University of Missouri have all produced results strongly suggesting a positive link between arts education and improved cognitive performance and resulting general achievement levels. Nevertheless, funding for arts education remains under assault in American public schools.

In the Duarte Unified School District, an innovative partnership entering its second year with the Orange County School for the Arts (OCSA) has begun to change that.

OCSA, now in its 40th decade, began as an after-school choir program in Los Alamitos, founded and directed by visionary educator Ralph Opacic. By 2000, with more than 300 kids in his program at Los Alamitos High, Opacic landed a grant and opened Orange County High School of the Arts (“High” has since been dropped from the name). From those modest beginnings, full enrollment is now 2,200 on the Santa Ana campus with about 3,000 incoming applications per year for the approximately 300 available spots. Keen to meet the obvious demand, about three years ago OCSA began looking for an additional campus.

Abbe Levine, dean of Arts Conservatories at California School of the Arts-San Gabriel Valley and herself a graduate of OCSA, describes the resulting symbiosis. “The (Duarte) area was in declining enrollment, so they came to us. … They were interested in how a partnership with a charter school could work to increase enrollment. So that’s how we came up with this collaboration with their seventh and eighth grades.” Middle schoolers take their standard curriculum classes at their home school, then attend the School of the Arts in the afternoon. In this way, high schoolers enrolled at the School for the Arts and middle schoolers throughout the district have access to top-flight arts education.

While the curriculum is aligned to the California Common Core State Standards and provides a rigorous college-prep academic program, five schools—akin to colleges within a university, each teaching a number of related specialties—make up the art curriculum: the School of Applied Arts, School of Dance, School of Fine & Media Arts, School of Music, and School of Theatre.

Levine cites recent stats that boast 45 percent of graduates from OCSA going to work in the arts or into graduate studies in the arts. Perhaps more impressive is OCSA’s overall 99 percent graduation rate. “Our theory is that a rigorous academic curriculum paired with a preprofessional arts curriculum, whether or not they go into the arts, (creates) a whole student who is well informed about the world around them and who thinks creatively and out of the box,” Levine says. “You know if you have a background in acting, you’re going be a much better lawyer.”

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