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The Young at Art : An Unusual High School Attracts Talented Musicians, Dancers, Actors and Visual Artists

June 25, 1989|CHRIS PASLES

Snatches of Haydn's Trumpet Concerto overlap passages from Bernstein's "West Side Story," Mozart's Oboe Quartet and Copland's "Rodeo." For good measure, someone else is practicing some Bartok.

Students in the instrumental music program at the Orange County High School of the Arts are boning up to join the South Coast Symphony in a Fourth of July Pops concert at Irvine Heritage Park, and the scene is what you might call creative chaos.

The 65 music students make up one group of five at the high school, which draws about 290 talented youngsters from Orange County and four outlying communities for pre-professional training. The first classes were offered in September, 1987; the second full year ended Wednesday when finals were given.

The music students were the last to arrive at OCHSA.

Only four of the arts programs--dance, musical theater, technical theater and visual arts--were offered at the start. "We had received applications in all five areas," said OCHSA Director Ralph Opacic, "but in the instrumental music program we did not get enough of any specific instrument to run a symphonic band or a concert band or even a jazz band program.

"So in the second year, we went into partnership with (South Coast Symphony Director) Larry Granger and the South Coast Youth Symphony (a well-regarded, 16-year-old organization) and got a 70-member orchestra just like that."

As they finished their first year last week, some of the students reflected on what kind of time they had.

OCHSA classes are held at Los Alamitos High School, and as the new kids on the block there, they encountered some hostility at first.

"At the very beginning," recalls sophomore trumpeter C. William Alsop, "they were putting articles in the (school newspaper) that were not very positive about OCHSA."

Opacic remembers an editorial entitled "OCHSA Invasion," which, he said, "attacked the sudden influx of students from outside the district . . . and the great emphasis and attention on the performing arts program."

"I think there was, on the students' part, a little bit of adjustment and jealously," he said.

Beyond that, the arrival of the OCHSA students led to a loss of space for regular students.

Sophomore violinist Heather Simon, 16, who had been going to the school before the music program opened, remembers that part of the cafeteria was used to make a dance studio.

"Kids were upset," Simon said. "They didn't have as much room to eat."

But the OCHSA students responded in a creative way.

"They had T-shirts made with the message, 'OCHSA Invasion: Make Friends With an Alien Today,' " Opacic recalled. "I think they put that into perspective nicely."

That creative response might be expected from the kind of students attracted to an arts magnet school.

Tuition-free, OCHSA is one of 10 specialized arts high schools in California. Admission is based on auditions, interviews, recommendations and academic record. The students, in grades 9 through 12, carry a regular load of academic courses at Los Alamitos from 8 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., or else take academic courses in the morning in their home districts and commute to Los Alamitos for afternoon arts classes from 2 to 5 p.m. They can study music history and theory; ballet, jazz, flamenco and Middle Eastern dance; acting styles and play writing; scenic design and construction; ceramics, drawing and print-making, among other courses.

Instructors include such working professionals as Stevi Meredith, director of the Long Beach Playhouse; Doug Shaeffer, director of Elizabeth Howard's Curtain Call Dinner Theatre in Santa Ana, as well as South Coast Symphony conductor Granger.

Although the problems of overcrowding at Los Alamitos haven't gone away, things are improving.

In its first year, OCHSA built a 700-seat theater, the Margaret Webb Performing Arts Center, which also will be used by the high school students and community groups.

The cost was about $500,000. About $100,000 came from the state; $150,000 from the private Los Alamitos Education Foundation, and the balance from the Los Alamitos Unified School District general fund.

Last year, three dance studios were built at a cost of about $100,000. Next year, there are plans to build an orchestra rehearsal room, to cost about $90,000.

OCHSA began with a $194,700 operating grant from the state Department of Education. Last year, state support was increased to $221,900. Next year, the school will receive $275,000. Its proposal for funds was ranked first out of 42 applications, which included other specialized projects in agriculture, the humanities, and math and sciences.

Under grant guidelines, though, next year will be the last year that the state will extend money. After that, the school will have to fend for itself. But it has some resources.

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