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OCBJ Orange County High School of the Arts.doc

OCBJ Orange County High School of the Arts.doc

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Published by: SherriLCruz on Feb 04, 2013
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Arts School Draws Creative Types, Business Backers Orange County Business Journal Monday, February 13, 2006 By Sherri

Cruz It's not pretty. The carpeting is worn and tacky. The walls are dingy, in need of fresh paint. The buildings are old. Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana, a public charter school started in 1987, makes up for all that with overachieving students. More than 90% go on to college or conservatories. Their collective grade point average: 3.2. "They graduate from here and have a choice of where they want to go," said Ralph Opacic, founder and executive director of the school. Business Backers The school has earned support from big-name, big-money businesses and executives, including Allergan Inc., First American Corp., Emulex Corp.'s Paul Folino and Walt Disney Co. Founded nearly 20 years ago in Los Alamitos with 110 students, the school now is 50 shy of its 1,350-student capacity. Its yearly operating budget is $11 million, about 70% from the state. About $3 million comes from corporate and personal donations. The extra money pays for overhead and arts classes, which cost about $2,500 per student a year. Students take standard academic classes from 7:45 a.m. to 2 pm. Then

they stay for three hours taking arts classes, including opera, visual arts and dance. The day often extends into the night. "This place is booming until 9 p.m. every night," Opacic said. Students audition to get into the school. About 900 applied last year, Opacic said. The school accepted 300. They come from 92 different cities. Some come by bus and train. The school has drawn corporate support because businesses want people who can think creatively, write and do math, according to Opacic. "More and more businesses are saying: 'We need somebody creative. We need problem solvers,'" he said. Going to Disneyland Of course, arts training doesn't resonate with all businesses. It's big for Disney. The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim hires from the school for all sorts of positions, said Adrian Fischer, director of entertainment operations. "Parade performers are quite common," he said. "As they advance, they could easily become singers or dancers." Disney recruits nationally. The school has an edge because of its proximity to the theme parks in Anaheim and the caliber of the students. "OCHSA has developed such a great reputation," he said. The school has had its challenges.

Some Santa Ana school officials were opposed to the idea early on. Some still fret that the school hasn't attracted enough students from Santa Ana. Making the $1.2 million yearly rent isn't always easy for the school. The school's landlord is Mike Harrah, the dominant figure in Santa Ana real estate. He stepped up with the building when the school relocated. Harrah's a supporter. The arts are one element to Harrah's vision for downtown Santa Ana. "He's as passionate about the arts as bringing the city back," Opacic said. Harrah recently spent about $250,000 to start a dance troupe at his nearby music and theatrical venue, The OC Pavilion. One of the high school's graduates, choreographer Mark Meismer, is artistic director for the Evolutions Dance Company, which will perform next month. Opacic said he first met Harrah when the school was looking to move from Los Alamitos in 2000. When the school reached 500 students, Opacic said he started looking in Los Alamitos for more space. But the city challenged the school's development plans, he said. Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido was following the matter and called Opacic. He was interested in bringing the school to Santa Ana, Opacic said. Pulido introduced Opacic to Harrah, who showed Opacic the school's current site, which includes a theater in an old church and a main building. The school, which opened in Santa Ana with 850 students, since has expanded next door into a former furniture store.

Retired auto dealer Lewis Webb and wife Margaret have been longtime supporters. The school's theater in Los Alamitos was named after Webb's wife. Lewis Webb owned dealerships in Los Angeles and Orange counties before he sold them to AutoNation Inc. for an estimated $100 million. It wasn't a belief in arts education that prompted Webb to donate, he said. It was Opacic. Webb and his wife knew Opacic through church, where Opacic still is choir director. "He had a vision. He wanted to complete it. We wanted to help him," Webb said. "I donated every year to help keep it going. I didn't want it to fail with my wife's name on it." Early fund raising began with parents, Opacic said. Then the school reached out to arts supporters. Its biggest annual fund-raiser raises $500,000 and is set for April at the Hyatt Regency Resort & Spa in Huntington Beach. When Opacic first came to Southern California from Virginia, he wasn't dreaming of starting a school. He was seeking fortune and fame. A singer, songwriter and pianist, Opacic was hoping to make it big. He graduated from California State University, Long Beach, with a bachelor's in music. But he said he realized he was no closer to breaking into the music business. He began teaching high school music in the day and pursued his musical career at night. He played in nightclubs and had a gig as tenor soloist at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

Started with Grant Opacic also developed music programs at a high school where he taught. Then came the chance to start a school under a three-year grant. He said he co-authored the $750,000 state Department of Education grant to start a school for talented kids. The timing was good,schools were cutting back on arts programs. "I was filling a void," he said. The grant was approved and Opacic went back to school to learn what he didn't know: education administration, school leadership, finance. He finished with a doctoral degree in education from the University of Southern California in 1994. He modeled the Orange County High School of the Arts after other arts schools, such as the North Carolina School of the Arts and the Fiorello H. LaGuardia School High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, made famous by the movie and TV series "Fame."

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