Power House Prep: How OCSA became one of the most selective schools in the nation

In less than a decade, Orange County School of the Arts has become one of the most selective schools in the nation, sending students to elite colleges in high numbers. Does this exclusivity change the school’s mission?

Cassandra Hsiao stepped onto the Orange County School of the Arts campus and instantly felt at home. She was barely out of grade school, a petite preteen in a floppy hat, eager to find a place to fit in. OCSA seemed “magical and amazing,” she recalls six years later. She saw students of all shapes, sizes, and colors, heard show tunes bouncing off narrow stairwell walls, and felt the creative energy. “I loved being there.” 

She barely noticed how bleak the campus looked to outsiders—a seven-story, deteriorating former bank building on Main Street in downtown Santa Ana. Situated amid empty storefronts and fast-food restaurants, OCSA faces government offices that serve the city’s poorest residents, and it abuts an enormous dirt pile that for years has been scheduled to become Orange County’s tallest office tower.

But looks can deceive, and Cassandra was prescient to see beyond the obvious. When she applied to OCSA, she had no idea how incredibly competitive the school would become. In the six years since she started there, OCSA has emerged as a powerhouse prep with acceptance rates lower than the nation’s most elite boarding schools.

Thanks to a serendipitous confluence of timing, strategic decision-making, and tireless fundraising, tuition-free OCSA attracted 3,400 applicants for 400 places in 2017. That puts OCSA’s acceptance rate at 11 percent—lower than at The Thacher School (13 percent), Groton School (12 percent), Phillips Academy Andover (13 percent), and Phillips Exeter Academy (19 percent), all of which charge $36,000 or more for tuition annually.

OCSA appeals to families looking for affordable, high-quality, intense, professional arts training and an impressive record of sending students to elite colleges. Since 2011, Stanford has accepted 21 students, UC Berkeley 125, UCLA 160, Harvard 9, Yale 7, Brown 12, Columbia 11, Cornell 20, and Princeton 8.

OCSA students come largely from middle- and upper-class families across five counties. Ten percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, compared to 94 percent in the rest of the Santa Ana district. In the past six years, enrollment has grown 25 percent—from 1,750 to 2,177—even as acceptance rates continue to decline. Admission hurdles are higher for some of the 14 arts conservatories than others, and acceptance rates can dip into single digits. To provide more opportunities, OCSA launched a new campus outside Orange County in August, hoping to replicate what The Orange County Register called “one of the more spectacular success stories in modern education.”

Illustrations by Vidhya Nagarajan

OCSA’s graduating class of 2017 broke records. Stanford accepted six students, and each Ivy League college took at least two. Cassandra was one of five students nationwide to gain acceptance to all eight Ivy Leagues; Stanford and eight other elite colleges also admitted her.

Looking back, she seems bewildered by her success. “My family couldn’t have foreseen any of it.”

Search her name online and up pops a timeline of Cassandra, microphone in hand, interviewing Hollywood’s biggest celebrities for Scholastic News Press Corps. She’s preternaturally sophisticated and polished, first a little girl in floppy hats, then a teenager wearing signature hair bows, finally a woman, hand on hip, confidently commanding the red carpet. That evolution required enormous family sacrifice.

Though other county high schools rank higher academically, they take nearly all their students from within district boundaries. OCSA students come from 119 cities. Cassandra’s parents drove from their home in Walnut to Santa Ana for 8 a.m. classes.

After two middle school years of too much stress and too little sleep, the Hsiaos doubted their daughter could continue with OCSA. But Cassandra wanted to stay. Despite her parents’ reservations, “My mom saw it as a place where I could thrive. So they let me stay.”

At OCSA, “Everyone is good at something, everyone is so talented and deserving,” Cassandra says. Sometimes that “can also be crushing. Because it can also feel like everyone is better and smarter and more talented than I am.”

That so many OCSA students are outstanding in their accomplishments somehow seems implausible. Yet the Register named Cassandra’s friend Rachel Yuan one of the county’s top 10 high school visual artists. Their classmate Brianna Satow, who performed at Carnegie Hall as a junior, won the equivalent award for piano. Rachel, Cassandra, and Brianna were among the 15 OCSA seniors who graduated last year with a GPA of 4.5 or higher—a record number and a 300 percent increase from 2013.

Cassandra Hsiao is an OCSA alumna who applied to 17 top-tier colleges and was accepted by all of them. Photo by John Cizmas

To understand how the stakes rose requires stepping back to 1987, when the first iteration of OCSA opened. OCSA was a dream with no role model, a partnership between the Los Alamitos Unified School District and founder Ralph Opacic.

In a story uncannily similar to the plot of the hit TV show “Glee,” Opacic created a nationally recognized show choir at Los Alamitos High School that grew from 30 to 300 students, prompting administrators to ask him to open an after-school arts conservatory. He raised $1 million to explore making the arts program a separate high school within the district.

The plan provoked a community furor so extreme that Opacic was unable to take his family to dinner without someone confronting him about it. The city council filed a lawsuit. Parents protested. “It was a big, ugly, heated war,” he says.

Just when the dream seemed over, the phone rang. “We think Los Alamitos is crazy,” Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido told Opacic. “We’d love to have you in downtown Santa Ana.”

It was the late ’90s, and Santa Ana was revitalizing its inner city. Although thrilled with the offer, Opacic hesitated. “I wasn’t sure our families would let their kids go to downtown Santa Ana. It was still perceived as a really rough area.” With few other options, he met with city officials and real estate developers.

When Opacic visited his future campus, he found it in a run-down business district across the street from county social services. He looked around and saw an old savings and loan, a church that reeked of urine and mold, and a shabby, seven-story bank building with narrow stairs and a glacially slow elevator.   

While some might have seen urban decay, Opacic saw opportunity. Nearby institutions were growing roots: Bowers Museum, the Discovery Science Center, the Artists Village. He brought families to visit, “and they responded well.”

When OCSA opened in Santa Ana in September 2000, Opacic had a charter, $1.8 million in redevelopment funds, $20 million in state financing, and a stable of veteran academic teachers hired away from the highly ranked Los Alamitos district. “Being driven out of Los Alamitos was the best thing that ever happened to us,” he says.

Despite an uncertain beginning—the school nearly went bankrupt in 2002—Opacic and his team of parents, teachers, and administrators helped OCSA achieve solvency by 2007.

Jim Blaylock, the then-director of creative writing, told parents at a 2007 recruiting night at selective Pegasus Middle School in Huntington Beach that he accepted most of the applicants. Only one Pegasus student applied to OCSA that year. She went on to graduate from Harvard. This year, three Pegasus graduates entered the Harvard class of 2021: one from Thacher, one from Andover, one from OCSA.

How did OCSA’s prestige rise so rapidly between 2007 and today? One reason was the growing celebrity of OCSA’s most famous alumni, Matthew Morrison (’97), who starred as the choir teacher in the TV show “Glee,” which began airing in 2009. Morrison’s character so closely resembles Opacic he even sings the Bob Dylan classic “Forever Young,” a signature tune Opacic croons at every graduation. Morrison’s habit of shouting out OCSA on national publicity junkets stoked applications.

An academic and counseling makeover was underway at the same time. In 2011, parents lobbied OCSA to buy Naviance, an online tool used to guide students to post-high school success. Families can systematically prepare students for college and careers beginning in middle school, tracking their progress—based on GPA and test scores—against other students accepted to hundreds of schools in the U.S. and abroad.

The campus expanded to nine buildings, including a new two-story, $16 million dance, music, and science center, opened in 2015. The church, rechristened Symphony Hall, was remodeled with leather furniture, refinished hardwood floors, and comfortable seats.

As with any school, the faculty, staff, parents, and students gripe about shortcomings. One parent lodged a 15-point critique on a blog last year, accusing OCSA of placing unreasonable academic demands on students that left kids stressed out and sleep-deprived. Responding parents had little sympathy: “The very rigorous academic load is required for my daughter to get into the college of her choice. She is not planning to pursue her art as a career. She focuses on academics so she can follow her dreams of engineering.” 

Aspiring parents desperate to have their children admitted seek advice wherever they can, especially on an unofficial blog called “The 14th Conservatory.” They complain about legacy preferences, about “special consideration” given to applicants of uber-involved parents, about the lack of official information and transparency, about the inequality OCSA fosters by accepting so many families who hire “personal audition coaches … knowing that most families simply can’t afford that.”

Wait-list horror stories abound. Families “staying in hotels for weeks” hoping for an acceptance. One anguished parent sought “just some information to comfort my child.” A few parents are plain pitiless. “Life isn’t fair. This is a super-competitive school,” one wrote. Exclusivity is a selling point, said another, “the reason the school is so sought after. … Only the best of the best get in. This is not a school for everyone.”

Not so, says Opacic. He wants to spread the OCSA dream to other districts, to give even more students access. OCSA’s first attempt to expand ended in 2015 amid parent protests and the ACLU threatening legal action. The proposal to close an Oceanside middle school with declining enrollment and replace it with an OCSA-like charter risked creating an “unjustified disparate impact on Latino students,” the ACLU told the local newspaper.

While OCSA’s original charter set a goal of enrolling 30 percent of its students from Santa Ana, 10 percent come from the city. The 30 percent goal “is not a mandate,” Opacic says. By putting schools “in cities like Santa Ana, we are creating greater access and equity for those students who couldn’t otherwise get to us.” 

A second attempt to replicate OCSA is underway. The California School of the Arts opened in Duarte in fall 2017, with plans to launch others in the Inland Empire and the South Bay. Over the years, Opacic has advised dozens of schools, and he wants to continue “taking everything we’ve learned from this experience and helping other schools across the country.”

At age 57, Opacic has no plans to retire. Though he might step down from the daily demands of running the school, he will continue spreading the winning formula, he says. “I don’t play golf. I don’t watch TV. I don’t go to the movies. So this really is my passion.”

Like Opacic, Cassandra Hsiao found her passion and realized her dreams at OCSA. She read her Harvard acceptance email twice, through tears. “I just couldn’t believe it.”

Three months later, TV cameras descended on campus to interview her. All 17 colleges she had applied to accepted her, and the media broadcast her story and application essay to England and Asia. Her story was shared on “Voice of America,” in more than 40 languages to 237 million people. Her social media inboxes flooded.

While Cassandra weighed her options, her OCSA friends decided. Brown accepted Brianna Satow, the Carnegie Hall veteran, but she chose Rice because of a scholarship that pays half her tuition. UCLA accepted Rachel Yuan, but she chose University of Georgia Honors College with a full scholarship, plus travel money. Another friend picked Harvard, another chose Columbia, and two were headed to Yale. 

As the May 1 deadline approached, Cassandra made a YouTube video. Dressed in cap and gown, staring earnestly into the camera, she thanks God, parents, family, friends, teachers, mentors. “It’s very humbling to think that so many of you could relate to the struggles of being an immigrant, of feeling like an outsider, of grappling with the language,” she says, acknowledging her viewers for “cheering me on this journey.

“I know a lot of you have been asking, Where have I decided to go? Well … the answer is … THIS!”

She throws open her gown, revealing a blue Yale T-shirt, as the song “Bulldog! Bulldog! Bow-wow wow!” plays. With a tentative whoop and an apprehensive fist pump, she shouts out to her 3,500 viewers: “Go Bulldogs! WOOOO!” while the words “I’M A YALIE! BOOLA BOOLA!” dance on the screen.

Susan F. Paterno is an award-winning magazine writer and director of the journalism program at Chapman University. Both her daughters graduated from OCSA and went on to Harvard University.

See Cassandra’s video below and read her application essay here.

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