We Answered Your Questions About The Orange County School Of The Arts

The Orange County School of the Arts in downtown Santa Ana has been a charter school authorized by Santa Ana Unified since 2000. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Today, the Orange County Board of Education will vote on the future of the Orange County School of the Arts.

The County Department of Education staff recommended the board approve the charter, with conditions.

We know what they had to say because those draft conditions are included in an agenda released ahead of the meeting, Among them:

  • "Revise admissions policies and procedures in charter petition" to get rid of placement activities, letters of recommendation, resumes, essays, and portfolios and instead select students - after filling certain preferences - by public random drawing.
  • "Revise the Parent Voluntary Contribution Agreement" to emphasize that these donations are "voluntary and not required for a student to participate in any conservatory or academic program."
  • "Revising the governance structure and bylaws" to prevent conflicts of interests and to be transparent.

Those recommendations echo similar critiques made by the school's current authorizer, Santa Ana Unified.

You can read the whole report and recommended conditions in our update from last week.

When we published our special report on the battle over the charter renewal, we invited your questions. Here are some answers:

ADMISSIONS AND WHO'S APPLYING

"Since OCSA is an arts magnet school, it would have made this story much more interesting if you had compared OCSA's application and admissions policies with those of an academic magnet school ..."

OCSA is not a magnet school. It's a charter school. Both are types of public schools but their rules are not the same. As a charter school OCSA must ask its authorizer — which for 20 years has been Santa Ana Unified — for approval of its charter renewal petition every five years. OCSA's current charter with Santa Ana Unified expires on June 30. That process, which has been going on for several months, is what we reported on on air and online last week.

The distinction between a charter and magnet school is not insignificant.

I talked to a charter expert about this — Myrna Castrejón, president and chief executive officer of the California Charter Schools Association. Her organization wrote a guide to admissions for charter schools.

Castrejón noted when it comes to magnet schools "districts are allowed to have practices that do weigh academic performance, grades ... or admissions on other criteria that charter schools are very clearly not allowed to do."

"What demographic percentage are applying?"

We don't know the racial or income demographics of applicants - the school doesn't ask for race or income on the application forms we've seen. We do know where applicants come from, from raw admission data the school provided to us.

For the current school year, we know:

  • 1,559 young people applied.
  • 7% of applicants come from Santa Ana, where the school is located. Of those 7%, 35% were offered enrollment.
  • Overall, 39% of applicants were offered enrollment.
  • Around 80% of applicants come from Orange County and around 11% of applicants come from Los Angeles County.

That's what we mapped out in our story. If you click on different cities, you can see how many applicants were accepted, denied, and waitlisted.

The California Department of Education does track the demographics of enrolled students - you can click around the department's data here.

Related to that, we also got this comment:

"Perhaps a school such as this, that reflects and draws students from the County as a whole, should be overseen by the OCDE, rather than the local jurisdiction."

That's the argument the school made after Santa Ana Unified approved OCSA's charter with conditions, including revisions to admissions and fundraising practices. OCSA officials pushed back on those demands — saying it amounted to denying the charter renewal — and appealed, which is how the matter came before the OCDE.

A January news release from the school reads: "OCSA has grown from a local program to a regional program, drawing students from more than 30 cities in Orange County (and more than 100 across Southern California). Therefore, an OCBE charter is a more appropriate partnership at this point in OCSA's history."

Santa Ana Unified argued that it did not deny the charter and that the County board did not have grounds to hear an appeal. But OCDE staff decided to recommend that the County Board of Education grant OCSA's request to become the school's authorizer — while expressing similar concerns as Santa Ana Unified when it came to admissions and fundraising.

FUNDING AND FUNDRAISING

We got a couple related questions about funding and fund-raising:

"Did you discover on the parent funding agreement that the amount is a suggested donation and that each family is asked to pledge an amount they can afford? We never were able to pledge the full amount, and never received any backlash."

"I'm an OCSA parent and SA resident. Why is the OCSA PFA questionable, but fundraisers from [traditional] public schools are not? Both are optional & don't affect enrollment; extracurricular activities aren't free at other public schools either."

According to OCSA's charter renewal petition, parent contributions are the second largest revenue source for the school. OCSA calls itself a "tuition-free, donation dependent" school. We talked about the fund to cover arts costs for students who can't afford to give, and we spoke to a student whose family couldn't afford to give and said he never felt any repercussions.

We also talked to a family whose parents said they took extra jobs in order to contribute toward the costs of the arts programs.

According to the most recent charter renewal petition, the school assumes that on average parents will give $3,349 when writing its budgets. Santa Ana Unified assessed the funding model that relies heavily on parent donations — the school asks for contributions of over $4,000 per student — and determined it could be a barrier for families unable to meet the recommended donation levels. That finding played a role in the district's consideration of whether to approve the school's charter in December. District staff wrote in that report that "parents who cannot afford to contribute are likely not to apply for admission."

Since then, we've gotten a glimpse at the Orange County Department of Education staff's conclusions after reviewing the fundraising practices themselves.

Here's what the OCDE staff wrote in response to the petition:

As for fundraising in general, it's true that schools can and do ask for contributions to fund school activities, often for programs considered to be extra to the normal curriculum. State law does allow for "voluntary donations" and "voluntary participation in fundraising activities." The reliance on parent donations at OCSA is distinct because that money funds a range of conservatories that, as the OCDE staff wrote in their report, "are an integral part of the OCSA charter petition and are required for all students enrolled."

While the last line of this year's form indicates that individual families' contributions are voluntary, OCSA makes clear that without parents' donations, conservatories could be at risk.

"At the beginning of the school year, if there are conservatories with low parent donations/fundraising commitments those conservatory programs will be budgeted to have a modified or reduced program," the parent packet reads.

ACCESS TO THE ARTS

I got a couple questions related to access to the arts — which is something we've covered for over six years at KPCC. Readers summed it up like this:

"Why aren't other schools in Santa Ana being held responsible for providing arts education as well? Isn't access to arts also attending events put on by the school? SA residents are able to do that."

"We lack serious art education in our education system. THAT is the story."

California education law does require access to the arts in schools, though as we've reported in the past, it's a law with no teeth since districts are left to police themselves. Statewide data from Create CA, an arts education coalition, show that schools with high populations of poor students have low arts participation rates.

Santa Ana Unified specifically is home to two Turnaround Arts: California schools: Sierra Preparatory Academy and Willard Intermediate. That means these schools get help bringing the arts to their students. We reported that the OCSA does offer free arts programming after school on Fridays for Santa Ana Unified kids.

Over the past 20 years, the school says it has served 5,000 Santa Ana children through this Camp OCSA programming and has enrolled 3,200 Santa Ana students.