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When an arts school in high demand meets a shrinking school district

The Orange County School of the Arts has become so prestigious and popular that it's become a bit of problem.

"We’re turning away over 2,000 students every year," said Ralph Opacic, who founded the school 30 years ago.

The public charter school in Santa Ana – which everyone calls by its acronym and pronounces "OH-sha" – has more than 2,100 students who come in from over 120 districts to learn from professional artists who lead the school's 13 conservatories. The commuter school for seventh to 12th graders is in high demand – some students take the train up from San Diego County, others take the Metrolink from San Bernardino, and a handful of families actually move from other states when their kid gets in.

"We felt like truly what we’re providing is this transformational experience for kids," said Opacic. "What if we could provide that for more kids?"

About 40 miles north of Santa Ana is a school district with precisely the opposite problem.

"We’ve lost about 25 percent of our enrollment," said Allan Mucerino, superintendent of Duarte Unified School District.

Now in his second year in the district, Mucerino came in with a mandate to reverse a 15-year streak of declining enrollment. In the 2000-2001 school year, the district had more than 4,600 students; now there are just over 3,400.

Some of the decline has to do with the aging population in the area, but many parents are transferring their children to surrounding districts with more specialized programming.

"People want choice and if you’re a district not providing choice, you’re gonna be left behind," Mucerino said. "We don’t want to be left behind."

Duarte Unified superintendent Allan Mucerino says he came in with a mandate to revitalize the district and combat a 15-year streak of declining enrollment.
Priska Neely/KPCC
Duarte Unified superintendent Allan Mucerino says he came in with a mandate to revitalize the district and combat a 15-year streak of declining enrollment.

Now, the district is partnering with OCSA in hopes of solving the problems of both – allowing the charter to serve more students by giving the district a new choice to offer families.  The California School of the Arts - San Gabriel Valley will open in the fall of 2017.

In the first year, officials are looking to accept 840 students, for grades 7-11, into the school's visual art, theater, music and dance programs. 

"It's a wonderfully exciting opportunity to come into a new community that seemingly has a real need for arts education on a regional basis," said principal William Wallace, who will lead the new school after serving as a dean at OCSA for five years. 

Back when OCSA moved into Santa Ana Unified, that district was facing similar challenges with shrinking enrollment. But the school has become a magnet for families and that’s contributed to a revitalization of downtown Santa Ana.

Duarte is hoping the same thing will happen in their city. To get the buzz going, they’re holding a series of preview days for prospective families to learn about the course offerings and conservatories. Like at OSCA, students will have a split day with academic courses in the morning, and arts classes in the afternoon – with high schoolers staying until around 5 p.m.

More than 1,000 people came out to the December preview day, pouring in from all corners of the San Gabriel Valley. 

"I’m really interested in pursuing my career as an actor and a dancer," said eighth grader Annika Bolton, who lives in San Gabriel. "So I thought, why don’t I open up my opportunities more and come to a performing arts school which can help me with that career?"

She already has an agent and had her eye on OCSA and the other highly-competitive performing arts school in town, the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts. 

"We’re super excited to hear that they’re opening up the sister school here, which is a lot closer to, I’m sure, a lot of families," said her mom Monica Bolton. 

More than 1,000 people came to learn about the new school during a preview day in December.
Priska Neely/KPCC
More than 1,000 people came to learn about the new school during a preview day in December.

Duarte wants to attract new families this like one and bring back those who’ve left. After elementary school, many parents in Duarte move their kids to nearby districts.

"That was definitely us," said Teri Cronin, who moved her kids to a charter school in Altadena two years ago. She says class sizes got too big in Duarte and there wasn’t enough opportunity for the kids. 

"As much as I understand the concept is – 'we need your families to stay here to make the school better for everybody' – as a parent, I had to make the best choice I could for my daughter."

But she says she’d move the whole family back if her daughter gets into the new arts school.

"We came into this school and there was automatically a sort of energy," said 12-year-old Grace Cronin. "I’m excited. I wanna apply."

The early admission deadline for the new school is February 4. More than 450 students have already applied. 

The California School of the Arts plans to recruit 10 percent of the student body from the Duarte city limits. Even so, Cronin is a little anxious about her daughter's odds of getting in. Her daughter is interested in studying visual art or stage production, but hasn't had much formal arts training. Cronin said she was encouraged, talking to the admission staff, they they are looking for more than just technical skill in the arts. 

"I think we have built into our system a way to make sure that we are incorporating students from all different skill levels," said Abbe Levine, dean of arts conservatories at the new school.

"It’s really about the creative voice and making sure they have that opportunity to develop that while they’re here. That’s what we’re here to teach them, you know?"

OCSA is working with Duarte Unified to expand arts offerings throughout its schools. The district hired an arts coordinator to build up arts instruction at the elementary level. 

Founder Opacic hopes to duplicate the OCSA program around Southern California and dreams of opening schools in the San Fernando Valley and San Diego. 

"What if ten years from now we could serve 10,000 students?" said Opacic. "That’s kind of what the big idea is."