“There’s something special about being in an arts school,” said Donn Harris, executive and artistic director for the Oakland School for the Arts (OSA). “People experience it in the hallways. They feel that energy. They want to be part of it. There’s a lot of excitement.”
The downtown Oakland school, founded in 2002 by Governor Jerry Brown, who was then Oakland’s mayor, will celebrate its 10th birthday Thursday night with a performance at the Fox Theater. It is the only public charter performing arts school in Oakland, and is actually made up nine different schools, each spanning grades 6-12, which teach dance, instrumental music, vocal music, digital media, literary arts, production design, theatre, visual arts, and circus arts.
In the hallways of the school on Wednesday afternoon, dozens of students were scurrying about, putting the frantic finishing touches on elaborate stage decorations, carefully choreographed dance numbers and complicated music performances for their big show. Meanwhile, on the third floor of the OSA building, rehearsals were in full swing in the School of Dance’s 100-foot-long practice space—which was standing in for the stage at the Fox—as the students practiced one of the performance’s main showcases, bringing together the school’s dance, instrumental, and vocal music groups.
The School of Instrumental Music’s jazz band laid down a groovy beat as about twenty dancers in black leotards finished up their routine. As they scampered out of the room, three dozen singers from the School of Vocal Music filed in. Led by a three-person brass section, the band struck up “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as the choir paraded through the room.
“Wind around this way to simulate being in the Fox,” shouted Cava Mendies, chair of OSA’s Vocal Music School. Reginald Savage, chair of the School of Dance, urged the choir to loosen up and move freely across the floor, while instrumental music chair Atemu Aton showed the bassist a correct chord progression.
High school students at OSA spend their mornings taking five 50-minute academic classes in standard high school fare—math, science, English. Every afternoon, they have a two hour and 40 minute art block where they delve deeper into their selected field. Music students learn theory, history, and have private instrument lessons. Theatre students start with Stravinsky and progress through Chekov and other masters, as well as fourteen other classes ranging from studying Shakespeare to directing and playwriting.
That’s not to mention the endless hours of practice that mastering an instrument or a performing art requires. “They’re here for eight hours, and then it’s all the stuff they have to do after that. It’s a lot,” Harris said. “And you know what? In most cases, they do it joyously.”
Harris believes that arts education is about “a sense of inspired creativity and spontaneity.” “It’s just a different worldview than most educational models,” he said. “Most are desk-oriented and test-oriented. This is not.”
While Harris said that Brown envisioned the school as a place for nourishing “the super creative mindset,” the governor is also drawn to rigor and discipline. “He talks about creativity with rigor, so this is a hard-driving education. It’s not just, ‘Oh, let’s be creative,’” Harris said. “This is a really rigorous study of the arts.”
You feel that rigor and energy when Harris speaks. Talking a mile-a-minute, Harris explains that when he came to OSA in 2007, the school was half its current size and made up of portables in a parking lot. They moved into their new digs—three stories attached to the back of Fox Theatre—in 2009 when restoration work finished on the theater.
The school now has 620 students and boasts an impressive resume of accomplishments. The school’s vocal troupe performed for President Obama last year and regularly performs the national anthem at local sporting events. The theater group performs every other year at the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. The production design team recently “cleaned house” at the statewide Ohlone Theatre Festival. In recent years, the school has produced a few names you might recognize—PopLyfe, a seven-piece pop band, made it to the finals on America’s Got Talent, and the 16-year-old singer/dancer/actor known simply as Zendaya now stars on the Disney sitcom Shake It Up.
Perhaps just as importantly to the school’s administrators, the school recently scored an 823 out of a possible 1,000 on the Academic Performance Index, an indicator of academic standing based on statewide standards testing, its highest number in the school’s history.
According to Harris, OSA’s graduation rate is close to 100 percent. “We’ve had one or two not graduate, so it might be like 99 percent,” he said. According to a school press release, since it opened in 2002, 96 percent of its students have transitioned to colleges or universities.
“We know that every kid is not going to go on in the arts. This is not about some elite classical arts world,” Harris said. “This is about creativity, inspiration and kids really finding themselves. Kids are really here to find their voice.” He estimates that about on third of their graduates continue studying their art at the college level, another third go on to a four-year college or university where they study something else, and another third go to community college or straight into professional work, typically in the arts.
OSA is a public charter school, meaning a good portion of its funding comes directly from the state. The school’s annual operating budget is close to $6 million. Donations, grants, and fundraising help the school close the approximately $500,000 annual budget gap they now experience because of state funding cuts. “The state pays each month. It’s kind of archaic—they pay by check,” Harris said. “It’s all public money, but that public money has shrunk by 17 percent in the five years that I’ve been here.”
The students come from all over Bay Area, some traveling from as far away as Fairfield and Pleasanton for the chance to get a top-notch arts education. Harris estimates that Oakland residents make up between two thirds and three quarters of the current student population. “They get a kind of training here in the arts, if they’re serious about it, that they would not get anywhere else,” Harris said. “Yes, there are some music programs in the [public] schools and some smaller theatre programs, but they’re not pre-professional and they’re not at this level of real engagement.”
In his time at OSA, Harris has seen a shift in the student body. When he started in 2007, the school’s population was 60 percent African American. Now, he said, that number is closer to 30 percent. He said he was brought on to help “re-diversify” the school and get its financial and academic act together, factors that he said encouraged more diverse enrollment. “Both socio-economically and ethnically, we’re getting close to looking like Oakland,” he said. “We need a little more Latino and Asian representation. But I think were doing a good job.”
Getting into OSA is no small feat. “This is like ‘Fame.’ We audition these kids,” Harris said. The next audition is January 26, when close to 700 students will be auditioning for 100 spots, by far the school’s largest audition yet. “My first year it was like 150 kids auditioning for 60 slots,” Harris said. “So the word is out. This is great place to send your kids to school, and it’s getting a little cachet—‘Hey, my kid goes to OSA.’ We didn’t have that a few years ago.”
Thursday’s event will be a showcase of everything that the school has done for the last ten years. “There will be a big focus on celebration and fun,” said Michael Berry-Berlinski, chair of the School of Theater and the director of Thursday’s show. The event will include work from each of the nine schools, in addition to performances by alumni and community members, the first-ever induction of twelve members into the school’s hall of fame, the unveiling of a school mascot and the presentation of a twenty-five foot long birthday cake. “It’s a party; it’s more than a performance,” Berry-Berlinski said. “We’re pulling out all the stops.”
Tickets and more information for OSA’s 10th Anniversary Celebration can be found here. The show starts at 7:00 pm at the Fox Theater in Oakland.