This fall marks an important rite of passage for the Oakland School for the Arts—its much-anticipated move into the historic Fox Oakland Theater in the heart of Uptown. Once construction and renovations are complete, the 5-year-old public charter high school will occupy three floors of classroom and performance space in the Fox Theater building.
“It’s unbelievable inside,” says OSA school director Don Harris. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.”
The move, combined with the recent addition of Harris, a seasoned arts school administrator, as the school’s director, should give a nice boost to the young charter school, which provides a rich arts education for more than 300 students, giving talented high schoolers a unique environment in which to develop their theater, instrumental, visual or literary arts skills alongside standard high-school academic curriculum. Kids come from near and far to attend OSA, though about 60 percent of the students are Oaklanders.
The school has had a somewhat rocky beginning with high faculty and student turnover plus an often changing administration. The school has also moved once already, from its original location in the Malonga Casquelourd Arts Center (the Alice Arts Building at the time) to a temporary facility in downtown Oakland adjacent to the Fox. Chain-link fencing encloses the school grounds, but the portable classrooms and performance tent harbor formidable talent that belies the surroundings.
“We’re still working on showing people that this is a permanent institution with amazing arts training,” says Harris. “As much as we’ve accomplished here, I think for some families, this looks awfully temporary. The move to the Fox is really going to make a difference in that regard.”
Despite its challenges, OSA has already garnered some pretty impressive props. OSA’s first graduating class, the class of 2006, boasted a 100 percent college acceptance rate. The class of 2007 was also impressive: Ninety-five percent were admitted into four-year universities. Standardized test scores have been good, the highest in the district for a couple of years. OSA students have gone on to attend institutions both academic and artistic, including the Le Cordon Bleu–affiliated California Culinary Academy, Columbia University, Stanford University, Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory, UCLA and many others.
OSA was such a draw for Colin Cortopassi, 18, that he was willing to commute from Pleasanton to downtown Oakland every day for the past four years. He took BART or drove in with his father, who works in Oakland. Cortopassi studied theater throughout his time at OSA, but he recently took a break to focus on stage production. “I think that because this is a safer environment than most high schools, people feel more apt to let loose and really be themselves,” he says. “I’ve grown so much as a person by being here at OSA.” This fall Cortopassi will attend theater school at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
OSA was the brainchild of Jerry Brown, and he continues to be a major source of support and funding for the school. Some of his fundraising methods have been controversial—an electronic billboard at the Bay Bridge toll plaza, a recruiting letter bearing his California attorney general title—but he nevertheless has brought millions to the school.
Brown was instrumental in recruiting the school’s new director, Don Harris, an experienced educator and administrator with seven years of success at the esteemed San Francisco School for the Arts. Brown started talking with Harris in November 2007, bending his ear for some advice about OSA. Pretty soon it became apparent that Harris was a perfect match. In his time at the San Francisco School for the Arts, he moved the school to a new location and doubled it in size, two things that the OSA administration hopes to accomplish as well. Harris agreed to take on the challenge and slowly shifted into the role, working half time at the San Francisco School for the Arts and half time at OSA for seven months. In July he became the full time director at OSA.
“In his part-time status he’s already made the most positive changes I’ve seen at the school yet,” says parent Kim Sow, who has two children attending OSA.
Harris brings a track record of stability. He’s been at his last three school administrative jobs six years, five years and seven years respectively. At the San Francisco School of the Arts, he maintained a staff retention rate of 98 percent over the past five years. “I did that by motivating teachers, giving them assignments that make them happy, and utilizing their skills,” says Harris. “My whole approach is to build a stable environment of people who are happy in their work and care about kids.”
OSA consists of 320 students attending both a middle school (grades six through eight) and a high school (grades nine through 12). Class sizes at OSA are small, and they won’t ever be higher than 25 students, while most public high schools these days are averaging 35 pupils. Each high school student is issued a free laptop upon enrollment. In the morning, students take their academic classes, and the afternoons are filled with arts classes. Students choose an arts emphasis and focus their arts classes in that subject area. Currently there are five arts emphases: dance, instrumental music, theater, vocal music and visual arts. In 2009 Harris plans to add arts management (a combination of backstage technical work, box office management and publicity), literary arts and digital media to the mix.
“Having our day split into two parts that are very well defined gives the kids a real sense of purpose and focus,” says Harris. “In many high schools, after lunch the kids’ eyes tend to glaze over, but here the opposite happens. There’s a spark; they’re doing the creative work that they really want to do.”
OSA admission is audition-based and grade-blind, which means that teachers and administrators do not look at potential students’ transcripts but rather base their decisions purely on the kids’ artistic talents. Auditions are held a few times throughout the school year and then again in the summer. Harris is working to grow the student body, and he hopes to get enrollment up to 500 students within three years. So far so good. The school’s most recent audition was the largest in the history of the school—112 kids sang, drew, played instruments or recited monologues with the hope of being accepted. OSA’s acceptance rate is about 50 percent, which is high for an arts school, “but we’re still young,” Harris adds.
There are no clubs or organized sports at OSA. “All the cohesive bonding that you might get from your chess club, for example, happens within your arts emphasis,” says Harris. “We say that the day ends at 4 p.m., but really that’s just the official end of the day, because after that there are often still rehearsals.”
Each arts emphasis holds about two performances per year, and the school puts on a big, schoolwide musical every year. For the 2007-08 school year, it was Once Upon an Island. With OSA’s move into the Fox, students will have even more options for their performance space, and 10 to 12 nights a year, they’ll have the Fox Theater itself to use for performances or fundraisers, and they’ll also have a smaller theater of their own.
OSA’s staff reflects its arts focus as well—many play instruments, one was a child star, some are in bands, and the dance director, Reginald Ray Savage, has his own dance company. There are quite a few Ivy League graduates among the staff. Harris himself has a master’s degree in acting and directing and worked as an actor in Los Angeles before moving to the Bay Area and into the education field. He’ll occasionally act in a play with his students or direct a short piece for the school.
“What makes OSA unique is the teachers and especially the artistic emphasis teachers,” says parent Kim Sow. “For example, our dance director, Mr. Savage, was in the Chicago Ballet, and he’s really nurtured some of the talented dance students, focused them on course, set some of the kids up in summertime Alvin Ailey dance camps.” Teachers describe a very different learning environment than they’ve experienced at other schools. “Lots of our curriculum 8 is interdisciplinary, and we try to make it connect to the students’ art form,” says English teacher Liza Gesuden. “The energy of these students is amazing and unique. I like grouping them in such a way that a project will have one student from each arts emphasis.”
“The teachers at OSA are really intense and into their art, and they just take you up in it,” says OSA student Chelsea Keck, 16, an Alameda resident who’s attended OSA since ninth grade.
OSA has already built a few important partnerships with local arts organizations, such as Destiny Arts, Youth Radio and Youth Movement Records. “Now that I’m full time here, I’m hoping to make lots more community connections,” says Harris. “There are so many great arts organizations in the East Bay.”
Though the recent state budget cuts, in effect for the 2008-09 school year, were enough to make Harris redo his school budget for the next year, the charter school’s budget is buttressed by having its own fundraising mechanisms in place. In addition to the fundraising work that Brown does on behalf of OSA, the school has its own development person who works with foundations. Additionally, the Annenburg Foundation recently gave OSA a $1 million grant.
Though the school’s temporary campus is nothing to write home about, the energy level of the students is invigorating. A recent afternoon found dancers rehearsing in the performance tent with Savage, other students reciting lines on benches outside and costume design underway at a table nearby. Students’ artwork hangs on the outside of almost every bland portable classroom. It’s easy to imagine how this will all be even more impressive inside the majestic walls of the Fox Theater.
—By Keri Hayes Troutman
—Photography by Lewis Smith