Dreaming of the Arts

Step It Up expands arts access to Oakland School of the Arts aspirants.


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OSA co-founding faculty member Cava Menzies, right, makes a point in class.

Photo by Lori Eanes

In William Shakespeare’s wonderfully quirky, cross-curriculum quote, “If music be the food of love, play on,” it seems like since the world needs the arts more than ever, we’ve got to find a way to play on. At Oakland School for the Arts, a public charter school in Uptown, students can get started on a creative life — and, possibly, a rewarding career. OSA offers intensive instruction for grades six through 12 in music, dance, theater, production design, fashion, digital media, art, and the literary arts.

But when such expressive endeavors have been cut from many public school curricula, how could a student know he or she has talent or even interest, let alone the desire to pursue a life of creative discipline? If a student has never touched a violin, for instance, it’s difficult to gauge whether leaving traditional school to attend an arts charter is the right decision.

Luckily, OSA wants to reach out to those who may not have had previous exposure. The Step It Up program hosts fourth- and fifth-graders on campus for a six-month afterschool program on selected Mondays, September through February. The goal is to assist students in preparing for their audition and entering OSA when they reach sixth grade.

“Our mission is to create a pathway for Oakland students to get arts training,” says Step It Up program manager Cava Menzies, who is also a founding faculty member of OSA in the field of music — and a stunning musician in her own right. To fulfill the aim of recruiting underserved students, the program is limited to students who attend specific Title 1 schools within Oakland. There are 42 Title 1 schools OSA works with, and a list can be found on the OSA website.

Menzies works to fine-tune the language in which she describes the program, “because language matters. Even the term ‘underserved’ implies they’re not being served, like we’re coming to the rescue,” she said. “But some Title 1 schools have really dedicated teachers. The issue is that arts programs are being cut across the board.”

Title 1 schools receive federal funding to “close the achievement gap” and “meet the state’s challenging academic standards,” according to the California Department of Education website.

Getting into OSA involves a genre-specific audition, so much of the Step It Up time is spent on readying students for that nerve-wracking experience. “We look at the idiomatic qualities of the auditions, with technical instruction in their respective art form,” Menzies said. For example, in vocal music, students might receive coaching in music theory, drills on sight reading, and advice on matching pitch, how to select an audition song and introduce it, and how to dress for the audition. In the visual arts, students work on building a portfolio with a varied body of work. “The students practice and get feedback from their teachers at the end of the program.”

Step It Up has been around since 2013 (OSA itself opened its doors in 2002), and this spring the first class of students who entered the program (as ninth graders) and attended four years at OSA just graduated.

Menzies cautioned that not everyone who goes through Step It Up is automatically accepted at OSA. This year, 42 Step It Up students auditioned for OSA, and 38 got in. From a field of 90 students in that sixth-grade class, that’s a very high acceptance ratio, and of those 90, 65 were Title 1 students. Still, Menzies would like to see it higher: “One of the bigger developments has been reaching out to Latino families, Spanish-speaking families, and in Chinatown. A lot of families don’t know about OSA and about the program, so we’re trying to provide information to level the playing field for families.”

Previously, any Oakland students could enroll in Step It Up, and it was open to fifth- through ninth-graders. The stricter rules have coincided with demographic changes. “As Black and Brown students are moving out of Oakland and we’re seeing gentrification issues, we were targeting specific zip codes, but then those changed as people were pushed out. So now we’re limiting it to students of Title 1 schools,” said Menzies.

“We’re in an epicenter of Oakland and we really want to make sure we represent a diverse Oakland.”

OSA is housed in the dramatic Fox Theater building, built in 1928. The behemoth was shuttered for three decades before a community group called Friends of the Oakland Fox began the process that ended in its becoming a renovated anchor for Uptown. Its eclectic architecture owes some debt to Art Deco, as well as to Moorish, Indian, and medieval styles. How fitting that this eye-catching and unusual amalgam brings together students of diverse backgrounds, with passion for differing genres of the arts. And for many young students, the acts that filter through the main auditorium, watched by breathless crowds of thousands, surely provide incredible motivation.

To learn more and apply for Step It Up, visit OakArts.org.

This article originally appeared in ou sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

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