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Spotlight On OCSA

A decade ago, Teren Shaffer wasn’t interested in teaching music at the high school level.

He was an orchestra conductor traveling the nation and in his spare time, teaching music at Chapman University, when an offer arrived to teach an ensemble at Santa Ana-based Orange County School of the Arts.

“After I conducted two or three rehearsals, I remember going home to my wife and saying, ‘There’s nothing like this place.’ I had found my tribe,” Shaffer recalled.

“I remember feeling the level of artistry was fundamentally different than anywhere else I had taught.”

Those initial classes led him to working full time at the school and last July, Shaffer was promoted to president and chief executive, taking over from OCSA founder Ralph Opacic.

Nowadays, the tuition-free school, which employs 750, has a $39 million annual budget, ranking it No. 14 on the Business Journal’s annual list of Orange County’s largest nonprofits (see list, page 26).

OCSA (pronounced OH-sha) has produced talented artists like Susan Egan, the original Belle in the “Beauty and the Beast” production on Broadway, and Pedro Pascal, the title character in the Disney hit, “The Mandalorian.”

“When I was at OCSA, I decided I could have a career in the arts,” Matthew Morrison, who was the star in the popular TV show “Glee,” says in a promotional video for the school.

The Beginning

Opacic began the Orange County School of the Arts in 1987 in Los Alamitos. When it moved to Santa Ana in 2000, it had 800 students in three buildings.

Today, 2,300 students are spread throughout 400,000 square feet in 12 buildings along Downtown Santa Ana’s Main Street.

Most of the buildings are renovated from their original uses, and include a 1920s church, a former Bank of America office and a seven-story building that once held the Segerstrom family offices. It may have the largest instructional dance center in North America, boasting 14 separate dance studios.

Shaffer gives a lot of credit to the campus to one of Downtown Santa Ana’s largest real estate owners, saying the school “wouldn’t be possible” without Caribou Industries’ Mike Harrah, a longtime backer of OCSA.

The school has attracted interest from other top Orange County executives, such as world-famous economist and former Pimco CEO Mohamed El-Erian, who was so impressed that he sent his daughter Samia to the school.

Earlier this year, the school honored El-Erian for his generosity with a naming ceremony for the El-Erian Family Acting Conservatory. El Erian, who is currently president at Queen’s College in Cambridge, England, is planning a student exchange program with OCSA.

The school works with other local businesses such as Huntington Beach’s McKenna Subaru, which last month aired a television advertisement featuring OCSA students, and the Disneyland Resort, which hires parade performers from the school.

It has developed relationships with companies that have donated tens of thousands of dollars of modern equipment, including Buena Park’s Yamaha Corp. of America and Foothill Ranch’s Red Digital Camera.

Rigorous Academics

Currently, the school enrolls 2,300 students in the seventh through 12th grades. They live in 120 Southern California cities, including a group that takes a daily train from San Diego. OCSA annually accepts 400 students out of about 3,000 applicants.

It also manages another 1,100 students at the Duarte-based California School of the Arts, San Gabriel Valley. Another 1,500 to 2,000 students annually attend its weekend and summer classes.

At the school, academics are taught from 8 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. The classes are strenuous enough that the students can receive community college credits that enable them to almost get a community college AA degree, Shaffer said.

“It’s a game changer because the cost of higher education is enormous for most families,” Shaffer said. About 95% of its students go on to college.

Art classes are held five days a week from 2:15 p.m. until 5 p.m. and sometimes as late as 8 p.m.

“It’s a school of choice—people want to be here,” Shaffer said. “They work hard. They have great reverence and respect for the environment they are in.”

It has five principal schools: music, dance, theater, culinary and fine and media arts.

It’s creating a “talent pipeline” for businesses and colleges, Shaffer said. About 55% of its graduates go into the arts while 45% head elsewhere.

“The kids coming here and their parents are consumers of quality education. That’s our demographic.”

The Charter School

OCSA, which has been named among the top high schools in the nation, is a charter school, which have come under fire from teachers’ unions for taking funding from local schools. About $26 million of OCSA’s annual budget comes from the government.  

“Charter schools were designed to meet a need for a specialized program that wasn’t being delivered in a traditional public school environment,” Shaffer said.

“We’re providing a fundamentally different education for a kid who is passionate about the arts and otherwise wouldn’t thrive in traditional academic environment.

“OCSA is a perfect model of a charter school done well.”

It’s a school where the sound of music waffles through the hallways and where Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is performed outdoors during lunch breaks.

The school’s annual productions include dance and music concerts, plays, poetry readings, film festivals, musicals, showcases and exhibitions. More than 25,000 families and community members attend OCSA performances each year.

The students are surrounded by like-minded peers who are passionate about the same things, Shaffer said.

“When you’re an artist in a traditional public school, you don’t always fit the mode, fit in. OCSA is a space for kids who may have been invisible somewhere else.”

Path to the Arts

Shaffer knows what it’s like to be passionate about the arts.

He was born in the San Fernando Valley where his father was a professional pianist and arranger, including work on television shows like Johnny Carson.

“My dad was the source of my initial music education,” he recalled. “From a very young age, I was sitting on his lap, playing piano. I loved it.

“At a young age, I was exposed to the arts, and I knew for a long time that my path would be to the arts.”

While a middle schooler, the family moved to South Orange County. Shaffer earned bachelor’s degrees in instrumental conducting, music performance and music education from Chapman University.

After earning a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the prestigious Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, he took to the road, leading orchestras in Florida and Los Angeles, among other places.

Since he began at OCSA, he’s has won many awards including the Kennedy Center’s Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award and Stanford University’s Exceptional Teaching Award.

Shaffer is now raising $5 million for a “student commons” to improve the campus’ central outdoor area.

He’s also launching a sixth school to attract students interested in architecture, industrial and product designs.

“If you’re not innovating, you’re stagnating. I believe that’s true of any business, not just ours.” 

World-Class Instructors

The Orange County School of the Arts has attracted not just students passionate about the arts. It’s also lured world-class talent as instructors for this current school year:

• The Pacific Symphony’s Dennis Kim, violinist and concert master; Jacob Sutsaita, assistant conductor; Benjamin Smolen, principal flute; and Michael Franz, principal bass.

• Matthew Morrison, a former OCSA student best known for his role as Will Schuester on the TV show “Glee.”

• Broadway and TV actor David Burnham, best known for roles in “Wicked,” “Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” and “The Light in The Piazza.”

• Andrew Cedar, a former OCSA student who went on to write songs including Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again,” a chart-topping song that has 5.4 billion views on YouTube and was nominated for a Grammy award.

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