Ralph Opacic could have had a nice career as a music teacher in a public school. Or, if he’d pushed hard to fulfill his lifelong dream and gotten a few lucky breaks, he might have found success as a songwriter and performer.

Paul Hodgins

A highly respected and award-winning arts journalist. In partnership with Heide Janssen, Hodgins has in just over a year established a community-focused, award-winning and widely respected Arts & Culture section at Voice of OC. In addition to his work here as an arts writer, columnist and editor, Hodgins teaches at USC. Previously, he was an arts writer and critic at the Orange County Register and the San Diego Union-Tribune and a professor at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. Hodgins holds degrees from USC, the University of Michigan and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

But the music gods had other plans in store. Through a combination of happy accidents, dogged perseverance and an uncanny talent for inspiring people, Opacic became a leader in the field of arts education, founding and running one of the most successful arts schools in the country for grades 7-12.

Opacic recently announced he’ll be leaving his position as president and executive director of the Orange County School of the Arts at the end of the 2020-21 academic year, capping a nearly four-decade career spent mostly with the institution he founded. OCSA’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously to appoint Teren Shaffer, the OCSA Foundation’s executive vice president, as the school’s second president and CEO. He will assume the new position on July 1.

“I came out here to California from Virginia to seek fame and fortune,” Opacic told Voice of OC. “I wanted to be a singer-songwriter.”

Opacic came west to study music at California State University, Long Beach, which even four decades ago had a well-regarded music program. “The director of choral studies there was Frank Pooler. He had helped to launch the careers of the Carpenters. I sent my songwriting demo tapes to Frank and he encouraged me to come out.”

Opacic was an active student musician, taking advantage of Southern California’s many performance possibilities. “I did a lot of piano bar and band stuff. I was a tenor soloist at the Crystal Cathedral. There were a lot of interesting things for a young musician to do.”

To help pay the bills, Opacic signed on as a substitute teacher for Los Alamitos High School. “My first job was with the theater director there. She found out I was in music and asked me to be the music director for their musical. I said I’d be happy to. We did ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’ It was the first time I’d served in a teaching capacity, and I just fell in love with it.”

Opacic went on to become the director of choral music at the school. He proved to be a master builder as well as a capable teacher, growing the program from 30 to 300 students.

That talent didn’t go unnoticed. “The superintendent encouraged me to write a grant, and that started the ball rolling,” Opacic said.

In 1983, Opacic cofounded Los Al Players, a summer musical theater camp for kids age 4-16. As the program took shape, he started thinking about developing a high school arts curriculum that would provide all the things that he didn’t get in his formative years.

“I knew what was lacking from my own personal experience. I had graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in music, but I didn’t know anything more about pursuing a career than I did when I got there. I thought it would be good to start a school that taught not only the arts disciplines, but that kind of crucial professional preparation as well.” Opacic chuckled. “So from my own dismal failure, the idea for a performing arts high school came about.”

Los Alamitos was a perfect school to start such a venture, Opacic said. “Charles Wackerman, his jazz program was nationally renowned. We had a really strong theater program as well. I thought, ‘Why not play on our strengths?’”

Notable Alumni of OCSA

  • Kit Armstrong – classical pianist
  • Scott Aukerman – writer, comedian
  • Dante Basco – actor
  • Dion Basco – actor
  • Drake Bell – actor,musician
  • Stephanie J. Block – Broadway actor, Tony winner
  • Ashley Benson – actor
  • Lucas Brown Eyes – TV show writer, producer and director
  • Chad Doreck – actor
  • Kara Crane – actor
  • Emma Dumont – actor
  • Susan Egan – actor (also former OCSA artistic director)
  • Michael Fishman – actor
  • Lauren German – actor
  • Dinah Jane − singer, member of Fifth Harmony
  • Bae Sung-yeon – singer, member of Pristin
  • Vanessa Hudgens – actor, singer (attended OCSA for seventh grade only)
  • Gavin Leatherwood – actor
  • Taryn Manning – actor
  • Joe and Luke McGarry – twin musicians, graphic artists
  • Lindsay Mendez – Broadway actor, Tony winner
  • Matthew Morrison – actor, singer, dancer
  • Pedro Pascal – actor
  • Monique Powell – vocalist
  • Krysta Rodriguez – actor (also former OCSA artistic director)
  • Matthew Shaffer – actor, dancer
  • Columbus Short – actor, choreographer
  • Justice Smith — actor
  • Nikki SooHoo – actor
  • China Soul – singer/songwriter
  • Michael Trewartha – music group Grey (attended OCSA seventh/eighth grade only)
  • Nicholas Urie – composer
  • Anneliese van der Pol – actor

Opacic’s idea came at a fortuitous moment.

“This was 1987. The country was in yet another recession. School districts were cutting the arts all across the board. If you were a student who was passionate about the arts, we were the only game in town. We really hit the market at the right time. There was nowhere else for (arts students) to go.”

Opacic’s timing was advantageous in other ways as well. “In 1987, school enrollment was declining everywhere in California. Opening an arts program on the Los Al campus allowed them to grow by 500 students. It helped them to keep budgets and teachers. It was a win-win.”

Growing Pains

By the late 1990s, though, the educational world had changed, and it led to the school’s first serious challenge. “Enrollment at Los Al was growing rapidly,” Opacic recalled. “They did a longitudinal enrollment study and realized that by 2000 we’d be squeezed out. So we started looking for a new home.”

At first, it looked like the school’s next move would keep it in Los Alamitos. Then things got complicated.

“The city of Los Alamitos was going to donate property and we were going to build a school from scratch. But then the city and the school board got into a big battle. They were worried about traffic, lowering test scores, a lot of other things.”

A struggle ensued between the school board and the city council that Opacic remembers as “like the Hatfields and the McCoys. I lived in Los Alamitos at the time, and it was almost intolerable.”

But an opportunity to solve the problem came from an unexpected source, Opacic said. “In the midst of all this fighting we got a call from Miguel Pulido, the mayor of Santa Ana. He said, ‘We’d love to have your school in Santa Ana. Would you come?’” 

Taking advantage of downtown Santa Ana’s plethora of available commercial real estate, the Orange County High School of the Arts (as it was then called) moved in September 2000 to a three-building campus comprising about 100,000 square feet. Over the next two decades the school grew to 11 buildings and 350,000 square feet.

There were growing pains, of course. “The biggest challenges we had in Santa Ana involved going from an after-school program of 400 students to becoming a comprehensive high school that provided arts and academic classes and support services. We went from a mom-and-pop shop to a $10 million business very quickly.”

The Marybelle Musco Dance Center on the Orange County School of the Arts campus in Santa Ana. Credit: Photo courtesy of OCSA

Fundraising became a bigger focus. Mortgages needed to be paid. New arts disciplines and faculty were added as times changed. “You look at student demand, what they’re interested in. When we got to downtown Santa Ana, we had classical and commercial dance. It made sense to launch a folklórico group in that community. It’s been wildly successful. About 10 years ago we piloted an elective ballroom dance class. That was so successful that we created a conservatory program.” The school has also branched out into graphic design, commercial music and culinary arts.

Recently, OCSA has faced other challenges. A disagreement with the Santa Ana Unified School District erupted in the fall of 2019. The district’s 37-page report criticized the school’s enrollment policies, which “encouraged applications from high achieving and well-resourced students and discouraged applications from those in the under-represented protected classifications.” Among other things, the report objected to mandatory meetings with parents where school representatives set expectations that donations of over $4,000 a year per family were expected. It also claimed that the school’s policies excluded local students. 

The disagreement intensified after OCSA’s five-year charter school renewal application was accepted with conditions by Santa Ana Unified, ultimately prompting the school to switch administrative jurisdiction to the Orange County Board of Education. On March 4, 2020, the board voted to take over supervision of the school and grant it a five-year renewal.

Opacic acknowledged that his school has negotiated some difficult times, and he wants to devote the next chapter of his career to making sure it runs as smoothly as possible. He’ll serve as a consultant and strategic advisor with a focus on special projects that will further the mission of the school. Some of his principal goals are establishing a $15 million endowment and finding more money for students in need.

Opacic also wants to help with a sister arts high school that opened four years ago in the San Gabriel Valley. “We need to do a capital campaign to raise money for some specialized arts facilities. I will probably lead that as well.”

But mainly, Opacic wants to see the school thrive while he watches rather than leads. “I will stay as long as they’ll have me. It really has been a labor of love since the very beginning. But it’s time to pass the torch.”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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