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Oakland School for the Arts still making noise after ten years


In 2002, Oakland Mayor, now governor, Jerry Brown started Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) with the hope that students would have an outlet to express themselves through art forms like dance, theater, and visual illustrations.

This year, OSA celebrated its tenth anniversary as a successful charter school – and its students, both middle and high school, are thriving on a curriculum that differs from the Oakland Unified School District standard.

The halls are almost always busy at Oakland School for the Arts. The bell just rang and students are filtering out of their classes for lunch. Donn Harris, Executive and Artistic Director of Oakland School for the Arts, is taking me on a tour.

Harris says, "As the school grew, music in particular began gaining really talented students at younger ages, so we’ve got some 11-year-olds here that are our future and they’re phenomenal."

Harris says this school brings out the best in kids because they choose to be here.

"It’s something they love, and they get in here because of that. They know they earned their way in, and then when they get here, they’re involved with other like-minded students. So all those factors together keep kids what we call engaged—that’s one of the new educational terms—we think they’re engaged," says Harris.

Ninth grader Nicoya Clayton says about her experience, " OSA has taught me like to not give up, cause like when I first came in, I kind of had a bad temper and like, if I didn’t get it, I just wouldn’t do it, so they taught me LIKE to keep going. So I always take that with me, to not be such a poor sport."

Even when students aren’t in the classroom, they’re engaged with the school and their art.  The hallways are always full.  During, between, and after classes students are working on theory homework, practicing their instruments, and honing their vocal skills.

Harris remarks on the school's atmosphere, "The spirit in the hallways is something that people notice right away when they come here. There’s an energy, there’s a life, there’s an exuberance that schools can often lack for a range of different reasons, and certainly the arts are what contribute to that."

Harris takes me around the school to see this for myself.  We stop by the instrumental music department.

"We are here in the piano lab and the students are in music theory right now and the instructor, Alex Conde, that was his piano you just heard,” says Harris. “He’s a very gifted pianist from Spain. So keep playing!"

OSA offers instruction in eight other art forms: theatre, visual, digital, vocal, literary, circus, production design, and dance. Harris believes that dancers bring a sense of poise and purpose as they walk through the halls of OSA.

"So as in many arts schools, the dancers are among the most disciplined and hardworking because the nature of their art form requires so much incredible dedication,” explains Harris. “Many of them take classes outside of school and they constantly have to be physically fit."

Larrilyn Parms-Ford graduated from OSA last year. Now she's a first year at Mills College.

"I’m majoring in music, so OSA definitely helped me prepare for that,” says Parms-Ford. “I’m confident with my instrument, I know I want to play saxophone. I know this is what I can do, this is what I want to do."

Parms-Ford was in the Instrumental music department at OSA for seven years. Her experience there gave her the confidence to test her musical abilities.

"I've auditioned to sing in shows I get into, I sing a lot at churches, so yeah, it’s opened my musical ranges," she says.

Harris’ message for the students of Oakland School for the Arts is a simple one:  follow your dreams and explore your creativity.

"I think that we impart to our students sort of an artistic attitude towards life, which involves curiosity, creativity, out of the box thinking, innovation, and that permeates what they do here and what they do next,” says Harris. “And that, in a bigger sense, we’re pushing that out into the world. This is not a regimented, test score oriented data driven universe, it’s a different universe, and we think it’s an important one."

After 10 successful years, Oakland School for the Arts is still making noise, even louder than before. OSA boasts a consistent graduation rate of nearly 100 percent, and approximately 95 percent of seniors are enrolled in college upon graduation. It’s a testament to kids succeeding in doing what they love – even if it’s not like traditional school. 

Natalie Meier is a journalism student at Mills College.