Oakland School for the Arts

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Coordinates: 37°48′27.97″N 122°16′15.28″W / 37.8077694°N 122.2709111°W / 37.8077694; -122.2709111

Oakland School for the Arts or OSA is a visual and performing arts charter school in Oakland, California. OSA opened its doors in 2002 with a mission to provide students with immersive, conservatory-style arts training in a college preparatory setting. The school curriculum revolves around the concept of integration between academic subjects and the arts. OSA currently serves 700 students in grades 6–12 with a student faculty ratio of 1:12.[1] OSA is located in the historic Fox Oakland Theatre building at 530 18th Street at Telegraph Avenue. On April 1, 2009 OSA was selected to be a California Distinguished School. It is a member of the Arts Schools Network and the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Founding and history[edit]

Oakland School for the Arts is a college preparatory, arts middle and high school. It was founded in 2000 via charter from the Oakland Unified School District. It received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in October 2001. In September 2002 OSA opened its doors to its first freshman class, the class of 2006. The school was the dreamchild of Jerry Brown[2] who was then serving as Mayor of Oakland.

For the first three years of OSA's existence, there were seven emphases: Theater, Dance, Literary Arts, Instrumental Music, Production Design, Visual Arts, and Vocal Music. During the 2005–06 school year, Production Design was merged into Visual Arts. OSA was faced with budget cuts during summer 2006 and chose to merge Theater, Arts Management, Literary Arts and Visual Arts and Design into one emphasis called Theatre. This arrangement only lasted a year and in 2007, OSA's Executive Director, Donn Harris separated Literary Arts and Visual Art into their own emphases.

As of the 2014–2015 school year, there are ten emphases or "schools" at the Oakland School for the Arts: Dance, Digital Media, Figure Skating, Instrumental Music, Literary Arts, Theatre, Vocal Music, Visual Arts, Circus Arts, and Production Design.

The school was first located at the Alice Arts Center building in downtown Oakland. It was moved to portables near the Fox Oakland Theatre during the 2004–05 school year, and moved to the Fox Oakland Theater building in January 2009, becoming part of the revitalization of a city center that had been dormant for decades. The Fox Theatre had been shuttered for 30 years,[3] and its reopening and the revival of the surrounding area attracted many new businesses, restaurants, and art galleries to the city.[4]

Loni Berry was director of the school for the first four years from 2002–2006. Saul Drevitch replaced him in fall 2006. San Francisco School of the Arts principal Donn Harris replaced Drevitch in December 2007. Drevitch resigned because of "differences" between him and Jerry Brown and the School Board. As of the 2008-9 school year, Donn Harris holds the role of Executive Director on a full-time basis.

The first graduating senior class, the class of 2006, graduated with 100 percent of the class accepted to four-year colleges. High-school graduation and college enrollment rates continue to rank very high among San Francisco Bay Area public schools (e.g., nearly 100 percent of seniors graduated and 95 percent enrolled in college in 2013).[5][6]

In January 2009, OSA moved into the office complex on the upper floors of the historic Fox Theater. The school now serves over 750 students. In 2013, the last year of the API school ratings, OSA received its highest score ever: 837.

In April 2014, OSA became the Master Tenant of the historic Sweet's Ballroom[7] at 1933 Broadway. OSA will operate the venue to serve its own performance needs as well as open up the space for community groups and performing companies.

As of 2014, Donn Harris has continued as the Executive and Artistic Director, supported by an organizational chart that includes a school principal, two assistant principals, a dean, and various department chairs. Rebecca Eisen has been the chairman of the Board of Directors since 2010.


Currently, there are ten arts emphases or "schools" at the Oakland School for the Arts offered to high-school students:

[in alphabetical order]

· Circus Arts (in conjunction with Kinetic Arts Center)

· Dance

· Digital Media

· Figure Skating (in conjunction with Oakland Ice Center, across the road from OSA)

· Instrumental Music

· Literary Art

· Production Design (includes Costume Design and Set Design)

· Theatre

· Visual Arts

· Vocal Music

Middle school students (grades 6–8) may audition for and join the Schools of Dance, Figure Skating, Instrumental Music, Theatre, Visual Arts, and Vocal Music.

Each year, OSA hosts two rounds of auditions. Students may audition for only two arts disciplines per round.[8] Applicants audition before a panel of faculty and staff who assess their artistic talent and potential. Upon acceptance to the school, academic placement is determined based upon the student’s prior preparation for a challenging curriculum. The acceptance rate is low, less than 30% in 2010–2011[9] and estimated to be ≈ 20% in 2014.

Middle School[edit]

Oakland School for the Arts first opened with a ninth grade class and added another high school grade each year. For the 2005–06 school year, though, a middle school was added. Administration went through great lengths to keep the "middle school" and "high school" separate, giving the middle schoolers a different entrance/exit and shorter school hours. Some performances, however—specifically the school musical—utilize both middle and high school students in collaborative activities, and there has been greater harmony between the two divisions in recent years, particularly in the academic areas.

Laptop use[edit]

Oakland School for the Arts has implemented both Chromebook and thin client technology for academic and emphasis use. The students and faculty are encouraged to utilize the technology throughout the curriculum. The Chromebook program is intended to be expanded as funding becomes available.

For much of the school's history, all high school students were issued their own laptop for each school year. This privilege was restricted to juniors and seniors in 2008.


OSA continues to excel on standardized tests. In the 2002–2003 school year, OSA received a score of 8 (out of 10) on the STAR test (the highest in OUSD) and in the 2003–2004 year, it received a 9, again the highest score in the district. While there was a significant drop in test scores during the 2005–06 school year, the school rebounded with improved scores for the 2006–2007 school year. From 2008 through 2014, OSA demonstrated gains each year, topping out at 829 in 2012[10] and 837 in 2013.

OSA is regarded nearly as highly for its academics as for its arts programs: in a school district where roughly four in ten students drop out before the end of high school, OSA maintains a near-perfect graduation rate. Students have gone on to Columbia, Stanford, and Berkeley, as well as a slew of high-profile art schools.[11]


In the beginning, OSA was plagued by notoriously high faculty and student turnover and other management problems. Upon the appointment of Donn Harris in December 2007, OSA enjoyed 97% faculty/staff retention in the 2008-9 school year and 2009–10 year, and has retained more than 90% of its staff in all the ensuing years.

Some fallout hit the school after Jerry Brown made a novel arrangement to provide it with extra funding. Brown had a large, lighted electronic billboard with rotating ads installed at the busy toll plaza on the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge, with the proceeds benefiting OSA.[12] The billboard became controversial in 2007 because it was so bright that motorists complained it impeded their vision at night, and some residents around the bay objected to its high visibility even from San Francisco and Marin.

In another minor controversy, Brown sent out letters to Oakland families recruiting them to apply to OSA in 2007—after he had become California state Attorney General, and using his title and the state seal.[13] Some questioned the legality of the letters, but the designated official to rule on their legality would be the California state Attorney General. Brown deemed the letters legal.


  1. ^ Facts & Figures. Oakarts.org. Retrieved on April 26, 2016.
  2. ^ http://gov.ca.gov/s_bio.php
  3. ^ Barista, Dave. (September 1, 2009) Platinum Award: Reviving Oakland's Uptown Showstopper | Building Design + Construction. Bdcnetwork.com. Retrieved on 2016-04-26.
  4. ^ Kane, Will. (November 28, 2014) Merchants head downtown as Oakland gains new luster. SFGate. Retrieved on 2016-04-26.
  5. ^ Oakland School for the Arts. "Facts and Figures.". oakarts.org. Retrieved February 22, 2015. 
  6. ^ Johnson, Chip. "71 Oakland School for the Arts Grads Going to College". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved February 22, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Sweet's Ballroom". Oakland Wiki. Retrieved August 17, 2014. 
  8. ^ Admissions. Oakarts.org. Retrieved on April 26, 2016.
  9. ^ Richards, Kathleen. http://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/the-local-arts-conservatory/Content?oid=3096410 East Bay Express. Retrieved February 12, 2015.
  10. ^ 2012 Growth API School Report – Oakland School for the Arts. Api.cde.ca.gov (June 25, 2013). Retrieved on 2016-04-26.
  11. ^ Richards, Kathleen. "The Local Arts Conservatory | Educations & Careers". East Bay Express. Retrieved August 17, 2014. 
  12. ^ BAY BRIDGE / Billboard at toll plaza too bright, drivers complain. Sfgate.com (May 17, 2007). Retrieved on 2016-04-26.
  13. ^ Murphy, Katy (September 6, 2007) Jerry Brown writes families, plugs charter school – The Education Report – Katy Murphy covers what’s going on in the Oakland schools. ibabuzz.com

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