The end of the school year is approaching fast, and students and educators at Oakland School for the Arts, a Locally Grown Oakland Public School, are getting ready for some final performances.
There is the upcoming Heart of Oakland, OSA’s spring benefit this Friday at the Fox Theater, which will feature student and guest performances including Oakland percussionist Pete Escovedo and sons Juan and Peter Michael, Rafael Casal (poet, activist, and co-star and writer of the critically-acclaimed film Blindspotting), and Glynn Washington (host and executive producer of Snap Judgement). OSA’s founder, former California Governor Jerry Brown, will also be honored for his contributions to arts in education.
Later this spring, there will also be middle school and high school graduations, and many recitals, performances, and concerts put on by students in the nine departments at the school (dance, digital media, fashion design, instrumental music, literary arts, production design, theater, visual arts, vocal music). It’s a busy time.
On a recent weekday morning at the school’s campus, located in the Fox Theater in Uptown, middle school students in Marie Plette’s vocal singing class have their chairs in a circle as they talk about who’s performing in the final recital and practicing the graduation song. They go around the circle and students talk about their plans for the summer (camps, travel, recitals, performances) and where they’re attending high school in the fall.
Down the hall is Reginald Savage’s dance class, where 20 students are practicing a ballet performance to a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” The students plie, releve, sauté; spinning through the air and flipping their heads back as Savage counts off time, shouts encouragement (“C’mon, you’re a warrior!”) and for the students to “GO!”
One floor down in a quiet classroom, high school students are hunched, heads down focused over a chemistry test. Because at OSA, the academics are as important as the arts.
“Our academic teachers do an extraordinary job,” says Brian Kohn, OSA’s executive director. “Some people assume that with the focus on art, somehow the academics get the short end. That’s absolutely not the case, we have some of the finest academic teachers around. If you look at our test scores, how we stack up against the district, you see these students are extraordinarily successful.
“It all fits together. (Students) wouldn’t be as successful in their arts if they weren’t engaged in school, and they have a faculty that understands where they’re coming from as artists, looking at it through a slightly different lens, and incorporating arts into academics.”
OSA is now in its 17th year and serves 750 students, with four times as many applicants as there are seats. Many of the teachers are also working artists (fields that include opera, jazz, symphony, visual artists) and bring a contemporary view of the arts landscape. They also can share with students what it’s like to pursue an arts career.
“It’s a fun group of really creative people who are very engaged in the artistic community and very engaged with what’s going on in our city and our country,” Kohn says. “And the students are the same way, finding voice for their art. It’s an inspiring place to be.”
There are tradeoffs. The school doesn’t have an athletic program, for example, which allows for more time in the afternoon for students to pursue their art. OSA doesn’t have as wide a range of elective classes as other schools because those slots are taken up by arts electives.
As OSA heads towards its 20th year, the school community has been undergoing some self evaluation and reflection on how its curriculum is structured. For the past year, OSA is in development to become a Linked Learning pathway school, and Kohn said leadership is looking at how students can have more flexibility moving between different art disciplines as they progress in school. They’re looking at everything from adjusting the bell schedule to updating the graduate student profile. It’s all about giving students more agency in their education.
“All those big questions that a school needs to ask,” Kohn says. “And because we’re a charter school, we have the flexibility to ask those questions, come up with answers and make changes.”
The partnerships with outside organizations that come from being a Linked Learning school will be especially beneficial for OSA, Kohn says. “Our partners will be professional arts organizations,” he says, “and the people who work there will give us their opinion on our curriculum and what our kids are doing. It’s another way to stay connected to the arts world.”
As OSA evolves, Kohn says it’s important the school stays connected to its roots and maintains its core and spirit. A number of OSA teachers have been there since the early days, which helps. As does the close relationship OSA has with its alumni, who come back and speak to current students about how the school changed their lives.
“Maybe they don’t all have celebrity status, but they found great success in life, in different ways, in different fields,” Kohn says. “That’s what education is all about. When you talk to those students, 1, 5, 10 years down the road they tell you their experience at your school meant everything to them.”
For more information on the Heart of Oakland click the image below.