Who should get to go to this high-performing charter school?
Life for students who able to attend OCSA is filled with music, dance, creativity and art. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
(Photo illustration by Chava Sanchez/LAist)
A nearly 20-year relationship gone sour. Finger-pointing over who's at fault. Hurt feelings and high emotions all around. Lawyers, of course. And children — lots of them — caught in the middle of the potential split.
The disgruntled partners: Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) and the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD). Their fight could bring down the curtain on one of Southern California's most popular — yet highly controversial — charter schools.
There's no question OCSA (pronounced OH-sha) — a charter school funded with $20 million in tax-payer dollars and bolstered by another $7 million from parents — has been a success by many measures.
The school boasts a high graduation rate and an alumni roster filled with Hollywood celebrities and working artists. The criticisms come down to who has access to that education and who has been shut out.
Until this year, the school's highly-coveted slots were tied in large part to competitive auditions, focused on talent in the field the student wanted to focus.
OCSA's founder and its passionate supporters say that's what makes the campus special.
An OCSA supporter wears a school letterman jacket to a Feb 5. meeting of the Orange County Board of Education in Costa Mesa. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
It's also what's drawing a new level of scrutiny from Santa Ana Unified.
Last fall, OCSA applied to renew its charter with SAUSD, something state rules require must be done every five years. The district staff responded with a scathing 37-page report that found:
Since that report came out, KPCC/LAist got access to details Santa Ana Unified investigators did not uncover, including the current "Parent Funding Agreement" distributed at mandatory meetings.
While district officials openly say that OCSA is a high-quality school, they also say its policies exclude local, mostly Latino students while welcoming a wealthier, whiter student body that isn't reflective of Santa Ana.
OCSA, for example, while apparently struggling to find qualified local disadvantaged students, has admitted students from other states and even other countries.
The district's recommendation to the Santa Ana Unified board: The findings support denying the charter renewal.
The board decided not to go as far as denial — instead, board members went with another recommended course: Vote to renew OCSA's charter on the condition that the school work with the district to correct the alleged violations.
OCSA reacted swiftly, and fiercely. The school's founder said the pushback from the district is payback over a lawsuit OCSA filed against the district last year over special education funding (that's a whole other act in this drama — we'll get to that). He also said there was nothing for OCSA to correct.
So the school stopped trying to work it out with the district, and started looking for another oversight agency.
Now, the issue is in the hands of the Orange County Board of Education, the body charged with taking up appeals of charters denied by their local authorizers. They don't have long to make a decision — OCSA's current charter expires on June 30.
This dispute gets at larger issues at play over access to arts education in California — which is guaranteed, at least on paper, but often plays out far differently in reality. It also speaks to the difficult dance of running and overseeing charter schools.
I've been following the story for months, in part because it so clearly goes to the heart of my reporting mission: asking who does, and does not, get to learn about and make art.
It was difficult to report. While parents and students reached out to me throughout the process, they were reluctant to share their experiences on the record for fear of retaliation from the school.
Meanwhile, the next round of OCSA hopefuls wait to learn their fate and the fate of the whole school.
Budding pianist Aiden Roman is 13. He lives in nearby Orange and this is his third try to get into the school. His mother is hoping her son doesn't get the same message he did two years ago:
"It was an e-mail saying, ‘Thank you for auditioning. We're unable to offer you a spot, [and] because of the amount of kids that try out, we cannot give you any feedback,'" she said.
Ballroom dance is one of 20 conservatories offered to students to study at the Orange County School of the Arts. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
ACT I: "WE ARE OCSA"
The Orange County School of the Arts hasn't always been a coveted and controversial bastion of arts education. It hasn't even always been a charter school.
Listen to part 1 of the radio story.
Ralph Opacic founded what was then called the Orange County High School of the Arts in 1987, when he was teaching choir at Los Alamitos High School. That year, 125 students took part in his newly formed after-school program that offered conservatory-like training in dance, musical theater, technical theater, and visual arts.
"I wanted to serve a kid like me," Opacic, who is now the president and executive director, told me. "That ate, drank, breathed, slept the arts. And that was so driven and so passionate that he would move from Virginia and come cross country to chase and pursue his dream."
In those early days, the school's Music and Theatre program was home to some of its most famous alumni: Susan Egan (class of 1988), Disney star on screen (Hercules) and stage (Beauty and the Beast); Pedro Pascal (class of 1993) best known for roles in The Mandalorian, Narcos and Game of Thrones; and Matthew Morrison (class of 1997), the lovable choir teacher on Glee.
By 1998, the program had grown so much — to 450 students — that it needed a new home. The way Opacic tells the story, Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido called him and said "we want you in downtown Santa Ana."
"Accepting that invitation was the best thing we ever did," Opacic recalled.
The school drew up a charter — essentially, a plan required by state law that lays out school policies, goals, funding sources and other details. It included a specific pledge: "OCHSA intends to admit a proportional share of students from within the territorial boundaries of Santa Ana, its sponsoring district."
An excerpt from the original charter agreement.
Santa Ana Unified School District's board approved that first charter on Jan. 28, 2000.
Think of charter schools like labs that carry out experiments in alternative approaches to education — in this case, a school that provides rigorous academics in the mornings then equally specialized arts instruction in the afternoon.
But charter schools are public schools, and because they benefit from public funds, there are still rules. Charter schools have "authorizers" charged with enforcing those rules. In OCSA's case, the authorizer was the local school district, Santa Ana Unified.
Every five years, the district's board examines the charter renewal application for a number of factors — like students' academic performance, the school's financial standing, and compliance with state laws — and votes to approve or deny its plans for the next five years.
RELATED: What Is A Charter School, Exactly? A Field Guide
Let's break those categories down.
Academically, the school has a lot to brag about. And it does, often. More than 96% of students graduate, according to the California Department of Education and many go on to elite institutions like USC, Harvard and Yale.
After the academic day and a short free period, students attend conservatory classes in their craft. There are 20 in all, ranging from the performing arts, such as acting, musical theater, instrumental music, and commercial dance, to other disciplines including culinary arts, production and design, and creative writing.
These are taught by arts professionals like Scott Barnhardt, the director of the musical theater conservatory. He was part of the original Broadway cast of The Book of Mormon. He's also an OCSA alum, from the school's days at Los Alamitos.
Life for students who able to attend OCSA is filled with music, dance, creativity and art. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
Overall, OCSA gets rave reviews from students and alumni lucky enough to attend. I heard from dozens of people to that effect.
"You would see kids singing in the hallways, and then some other kids further down the hallway will be practicing their dance moves," ballet folklórico grad Ivette Larios from Santa Ana told me. "And you're just kind of ‘Oh my gosh, it's like High School Musical, basically."
"You have all of these people coming together...to be the outcasts, which is the norm here," said senior Jason Cohen, a trumpet player from Aliso Viejo. "Being those...strange or weird kids is kind of what's accepted and what's loved and what makes this community something that is so special."
"He would — playing the French horn — have been lonely and unhappy at our local high school where surfing and football is all that is focused on as extra-curricular options," parent Eloise Coopersmith wrote when we reached out for feedback. "This school save[d] my son's life and helped him achieve a level of confidence that will carry him through life."
"It saved my life. I was bullied horrendously my entire life and I had a very difficult home life," Brad West who studied commercial voice and graduated in 2014 said. "OCSA was my escape. I always felt welcomed."
Because of its reputation, OCSA draws applications from not only around Orange County and Southern California, but even a handful of families from around the country — and around the world. For the current school year, 1,559 students applied. Just four in 10 overall were offered enrollment — though some conservatories are more competitive than others.
NOTE: The six international applicants aren't included on this map. Two applicants from from Spain were extended offers to enroll; the remaining four were were denied.
Source: Orange County School of the Arts 2019-20 admissions cycle data
Who are they? Despite the fact that the school's campus is scattered around Santa Ana's Main Street, enrollment data show that less than 10% of its student body actually lives in Santa Ana.
Source: California Department of Education
NOTE: Asian does not include Filipino designation; Filipino and Pacific Islander are grouped with "Other."
And that's not the only disparity. Latino enrollment in Santa Ana Unified schools tops 90%. OCSA's student body is less than a quarter Latino. And in a district where about 80% of Santa Ana students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, fewer than 8% of OCSA's students are.
The demographics of the school aren't in line with Orange County overall either, where 34% of the population and 49% of public school students identify as Latino.
The numbers raise important questions about fairness: Who applies in the first place and how does OCSA decide who makes the cut?
We'll get to the question about the applicant pool — and the role big financial expectations might play — later. But first, the question of who makes the cut.
The answer is simple, in theory. Under state law, public charter schools that have more applicants than available seats are supposed to conduct a lottery to decide.
OCSA's downtown Santa Ana campus is bisected by a public street that remains closed for student's safety. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
ACT II: OVERSIGHT
All Leah Jacobs wanted was for her daughter to feel accepted. Her 11-year-old, whose name we are not using to protect her privacy, has ADHD and had trouble making friends until she joined a local theater group in South Orange County..
"It was really the first time in her life that she had found a group of people that she felt connected to," Jacobs explained. "Who accepted her."
Listen to part 2 of the radio story.
When her daughter was in 5th grade, she told her mom she wanted to go to the Orange County School of the Arts. The first step was an application. They wrote a resume — an unusual request for an 11-year-old — answered short essay questions, and collected letters of recommendation. Then, since her daughter enjoys acting and theater, a taped monologue.
Jacobs asked around for advice on how to prepare, and she heard that some people hire private coaches to boost their kids' chances. So she did, too.
And every night after dinner for six weeks, she'd send her husband and other kids upstairs while Jacobs and her daughter practiced her performance — from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
To Jacobs, it seemed like a lot of work to go to a public school.
"But you know what? My daughter really wanted to go to this school. I was told by the parents of current students that this is how it's done. So fine, I go along with it," she explained.
Then last March, the email arrived in Jacobs' inbox:
"She was devastated," recalled Jacobs, who was upset, too. They spent a lot of time and money — Jacobs estimates about $1,200 — on this shot.
Leah Jacobs' daughter's denial letter from OCSA. (Source: California Department of Education via a public records request)
That's when the questions crept in.
"How is it that they are able to receive public funding, just like my local neighborhood school, but they can be so selective in their processes?" she wondered.
"What happens to kids that don't have the same advantages as my child, people from low-income families or people whose parents work a lot and can't take the time to drive them 40 miles to an acting coach?"
She recalled that the other charter schools closer to home do random drawings when interest exceeds space, and thought maybe there was an exception for charter schools with a focus on the arts.
"There must be something I'm missing," she thought. "There must be a reason why OCSA is allowed to put these applicants through so many hoops."
But hoops — in the eyes of the California Charter Schools association, which advises schools around the state — might or might not be acceptable, "depending on how these requirements are implemented."
"Applications and auditions can be used as part of the admissions process, but a student's admission to the school should not be conditioned solely on this criteria," the association explains. For example, a student should not be denied enrollment based on the content of an admissions essay, but only for failure to write the essay."
When there isn't enough room at a charter school — as is the case at OCSA — then charter schools must go to a lottery. State law has emphasized that part.
Jacobs wasn't the first to raise these questions. A 2016 report by the ACLU of Southern California detailed barriers to attending charter schools around the state. OCSA was one of the 200 schools called out for practices the report found "plainly exclusionary."
She wanted answers, so last year she filed a formal complaint with Santa Ana Unified. "Now it seems like it would be a great time to reexamine the policies I have mentioned and seriously consider if OCSA is compliant with the letter and the spirit of the law," she wrote.
To her surprise, Santa Ana Unified investigated — and concluded that OCSA's auditions could be discriminatory.
The district suggested the school stick to an old-fashioned lottery — a recommendation it also made in the school's first Charter Oversight Report that was based on a site visit in May 2019.
Then on Halloween, Jacobs received strikingly different results from OCSA's own investigation, which concluded that the school was in full compliance with the admissions procedures in its charter.
Opacic, the founder and current president and executive director, points out that the admissions process — including the audition requirement — was clearly stated in its original charter application approved by the board in 2000, and reauthorized in its charter renewals in 2010 and 2015. (Neither Santa Ana Unified nor OCSA were able to provide a copy of the charter as approved in 2005).
Arts education reporting requires a carefully orchestrated team of reporters, editors and YOU. Don't miss a beat: Ensure the arts get proper coverage in Southern California.
Opacic also said he doesn't think auditions are inherently discriminatory.
"It does make me a little crazy," he said. "To suggest that students that come from a low socioeconomic family or students of diversity aren't talented — if I were one of those families, I'd be insulted."
But Opacic recognized there had been a shift in expectations and OCSA pledged in its charter renewal petition to replace auditions with what they called "placement activities" and to adopt a new lottery system "to determine enrollment by conservatory, grade, and level."
In its response, the district's staff raised questions about how exactly that system would work. "The process for determining the ‘appropriate placement' or ‘appropriate level' in a required conservatory is unclear," the report says.
"Placement activities" vary by conservatory, but in general they include filing an application and submitting a portfolio.
Opacic compares it to a placement test. "You wouldn't put a student in a calculus class if they haven't taken pre-algebra, algebra, or geometry class," he explained.
Those types of placement tests, however, usually apply to students who are already enrolled in a school.
However it will work, the placement method isn't sitting well with much of the OCSA community. An online petition is urging a return to the old audition system.
"I tried hard to get into this school and was accepted based off of my ability in the arts," one supporter wrote. "It is unfair to those who have artistic ability to be prevented from going to OCSA by a lottery system that disregards skill."
For the school's critics, that's exactly the point. Charter schools, they say, are public, taxpayer-supported institutions that must serve all students who are interested and want to learn, not only students who have already demonstrated aptitude in a particular subject.
I should note, again, here, that few parents KPCC/LAist heard from over several months were willing to share their experiences at the school on the record. Others I heard from feared openly questioning OCSA's methods and the possible backlash from a strong, unified coalition of OCSA parents.
"In the back of my mind, I have this image of a ballerina throwing a brick through my window," Jacobs said. "I hope that's just an over exaggeration of my fears, because I'm not coming from a malicious place here. And I would get that people could say that this is sour grapes because my kid didn't get in the school."
Opacic says auditions and aptitude and demographics aren't the real reason people are so angry on both sides. The heightened scrutiny, he says, stems in general from a growing anti-charter atmosphere, and specifically because OCSA sued Santa Ana last year over a different issue.
Santa Ana Unified School District Deputy Superintendent Alfonso Jimenez (left) and Ralph Opacic, OCSA's Executive Director, stood beside each other at a Feb. 5 meeting of the Orange County Board of Education in Costa Mesa. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
ACT III: DRAMA
Listen to part 3 of the radio story.
And here we come to what Opacic and other OCSA boosters believe is the crucial backstory: The fight over a bill for educating students with special needs.
Under state law, charter schools are required to contribute a "fair share" of their revenues to help cover those costs. Santa Ana Unified says it didn't collect all of those "fair share" funds from the district's charter schools over many years. In March 2019, the district sent invoices for millions in back funding. OCSA's share amounted to more than $19 million.
In May, OCSA responded — with a lawsuit seeking to prevent the district from withholding state funding to make up for the alleged shortfall.
Opacic thinks retaliation for this legal drama is the real reason why OCSA came under the district's microscope. Alfonso Jimenez, the district's deputy superintendent for educational services, insists it's just the authorizer trying to do its oversight responsibilities.
"I know the charters don't always like it," Jimenez said. "Because past practice has been here that pretty much the charters were left alone."
And that has changed.
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In June, OCSA received its first ever "Charter School Oversight Report." In it, district staff listed concerns about the school's auditions, lack of a lottery, and a racial makeup that neither reflected Santa Ana Unified or Orange County. Over the summer, lawyers for the school and district battled it out in the boardroom over whether it was fair for district staff to tell the California School Finance Authority that the school was not in "good standing" because of the disputed special education funds. .
"Unfortunately this was a renewal year for us," Opacic lamented as he summarized this sequence of events at a Feb. 5 county board of education meeting.
Then, in December, came SAUSD's staff report in response to OCSA's petition to renew its charter for five more years.
Among other "deficiencies," as Santa Ana Unified staff describe it in the report, OCSA's admissions policies could discourage enrollment by kids from low-income families, English learners, students with special needs, foster youth, and homeless students.
"Many parents of students and students in these target populations would not even apply," the report says.
One reason: the expense behind filing an application. The report points out, for example, that requiring students to upload performance videos assumes that all kids have access to cameras and smartphones.
Also even for the families who got in, there was the matter of paying for the arts offerings that drew them to OCSA in the first place.
According to budgets provided in the charter petition, the school gets about $20 million each year from the state — which is enough to cover its academic offerings, but not the arts conservatories. The school relies on parents and community contributions for the more than $7 million it takes to pay for things like supplies, costumes, trips, and classes with master artists.
Like all public schools, OCSA can't charge tuition. So instead, they called parent meetings and asked for donations. In fact, they say they depend on them.
This isn't like selling a couple of candy bars — the asks are big.
This current school year, the school suggested families of high school acting students give $4,950. Next year, assuming the school is still open, a revised parent packet will suggest they up the donation, to $5,950. And the information also says it will cost the school $12 million to offer the arts conservatories.
Santa Ana resident Gay Olivos remembers these asks from when her daughters attended the school.
"I didn't know what would happen if I didn't pay," she remembered. "I was just glad she was in there...So [my husband] and I sacrificed for her to go there. We took extra jobs."
Opacic says OCSA takes pains to close financial gaps. He points to free classes the school offers to kids interested in the arts — and to the school's ballet folklórico conservatory, which was created in an effort to connect with the local arts community. There was even an admissions preference given to Santa Ana students ("if there are two students of equal talent, and one of them resides in Santa Ana, that student is accepted").
* NOTE: The figure for Santa Ana Unified School District covers schools grades K-12, excluding OCSA.
Source: 2018–19 California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) via California Department of Education
He says the district used "mischaracterizations and untruths" to justify the board's December decision to conditionally approve charter renewal, contingent on the school addressing several deficiencies. Opacic says that by then changes, the school had already addressed those issues.
The district staff's 37-page report was the last straw for OCSA's board, which rejected the findings and responded to the claims in its own 47-page letter to the Orange County Board of Education.
OCSA punctuated its response with an angry press release distributed the same day.
"Given the destructive and deceptive conduct of SAUSD toward OCSA these past nine months," Opacic is quoted saying in the release, "SAUSD has demonstrated that it does not deserve our trust, nor is it a reliable, well-intentioned partner in support of educational excellence for OCSA's students. SAUSD is jeopardizing the futures of our 2,200 students and 550 faculty and staff."
SAUSD's Jimenez takes offense to that.
"We just have to ensure that as an authorizer of charter schools that we do our due diligence in providing that oversight because that's the way the law was written," he said. "And it's not an ‘I got you.' "
Leah Jacobs, who complained to the district about the admissions system, questions why SAUSD hadn't taken that stance years ago.
Why didn't the district stop this much earlier?
"They are so late to this oversight party that it's ridiculous," she said. "But they're here now, so I guess we can applaud that fact."
Jimenez says the district "owns" its previous lack of oversight.
"If it didn't happen previously, then that is something that we look back and learn from," he said.
On Feb. 5, hundreds of the school's supporters packed into the Orange County Board of Education's headquarters in hopes of convincing them to become OCSA's authorizer, which would mark an official break from Santa Ana Unified and its demands. More than 21,000 supporters (and counting) have signed an online petition in support of the school.
Hundreds of OCSA supporters packed into a Feb 5. meeting of the Orange County Board of Education in Costa Mesa. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
Much of the debate at the meeting was focused on the ongoing litigation between the school and the district, and procedural questions, like whether the county board can even consider the appeal since Santa Ana Unified never actually denied the charter.
Very little board discussion had to do with the Santa Ana Unified's concerns about equity and access.
When SAUSD counsel Sarah Sutherland tried to bring up the issues, you couldn't hear her over OCSA supporters' yells. Board president Mari Barke banged her gavel and asked the crowd to be respectful.
"This is why I'm not going to attempt to respond to the differences in opinion in terms of how the school's operating and how oversight should be done," Sutherland said.
Opacic, for his part, thinks the meeting went well. Still, there's no certainty that the board will take over as the charter authorizer. Around Southern California, other charter authorizers have had different reactions to the school's model.
A sister school, the California School of the Arts — San Gabriel Valley, opened in 2017 after it was authorized by the Duarte Unified School District. But when OCSA tried to establish the California School of the Arts — San Diego County, the Vista Unified School District's board denied the authorization.
The school tried to appeal Vista's denial to San Diego County's Department of Education, and its board denied that appeal. Just like Santa Ana Unified's staff, the San Diego county staff had questions about the school's proposed admissions and fundraising practices.
Nonetheless, support in Orange County remains strong. Over a dozen OCSA supporters made public comments at the Feb. 5 meeting about why they loved the school.
Student Luisa Romero sobbed as she described "the lessons that I've learned throughout my time at OCSA."
"The teachers have always provided unconditional attention to my concerns, and the artistic experiences I've gotten all are things that cannot be experienced elsewhere," she said.
Not a single member of the public spoke critically of the school throughout the hours-long meeting.
But If the Orange County Board of Education votes to deny the charter, Opacic said OCSA would probably start notifying families that the school is closing.
The board's next meeting is March 4.
Much of OCSA's campus is decorated in colorful murals and paintings like this sea-themed staircase. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
ACT IV: CURTAIN CALL
As the future of the school hangs in the balance, OCSA's 2,200 students are still attending classes. Some 1,500 applicants are still completing their placement activities, with the hopes of getting one of the 465 coveted spots at the school next year.
I met with Aiden Roman — the 13-year-old who has already been turned down twice — and his mom at their home in Orange on a Friday afternoon. His dogs — Sonata and Mozart, of course — barked in the background as we talked.
He didn't know much about the drama surrounding the school. He's been focused on what he can control: preparing for his placement activity. An hour or two of piano after school every day, lessons with a private teacher, breathing exercises, and even a prayer.
He says he felt sad after his last rejection — "it was a little discouraging" — but found motivation in the experience.
Aiden Roman poses with his mom, Veronica, in front of the Orange County School of the Arts. Aiden is trying for a third time to get a coveted spot at the popular arts school. (Courtesy Veronica Alva-Roman)
"The first time I wasn't sure what to expect, but we prepared very, very hard and we played the pieces many, many times and we just kept running it over and over," he said. "And during the second time, I knew what to expect. So we prepared a little bit better."
He's confident that the judges will recognize what he sees in himself. "I know that my skills are good. And it's fine if other people don't think that, but I told myself that I know I'm good."
He, like OCSA, is hoping to receive good news about the future in March.
. . .
We will keep reporting on this. You can read what we learn by checking below for links to related coverage. Sign up here to receive notifications of new developments.
We read documents requested from and provided by the California Department of Education, Orange County School of the Arts and Santa Ana Unified School District. Those documents included:
Neither the district nor the school could provide a copy of the school's 2005-10 charter.
We attended meetings of the Santa Ana Unified School District and Orange County Department of Education boards of education, OCSA Preview Days and an afternoon of conservatory classes at the school.
We also heard from, reached out to, and/or interviewed (on and off the record) dozens of people with a connection to the school, district and community, including OCSA and Santa Ana Unified administrators, current and former students, parents of current and former students, current and former applicants and their parents and members of the local community.
Exposure to the arts can open doors to a creative life, but not everyone has the same opportunities to be creative — even though California state law requires access to arts education. Through covering arts education, KPCC/LAist explores what's being done to address the disparity and who does, and does not, get to learn about and make art.
Special thanks to Lisa Brenner, Mike Kessler, Stephanie Kraft and Sarah Pineda.