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Orange County Business Journal

Piano Man
By Sherri Cruz - 3/19/2007
Orange County Business Journal Staff

They’d sit at the bar and put bread in his jar, but making a living as a piano man was a struggle for
Ralph Opacic.

“I floundered,” said Opacic, founder and head of Orange County High School of the Arts in Santa Ana.

Opacic was honored at the annual Excellence in Entrepreneurship luncheon put on by the Business
Journal on March 8.

To make ends meet, the Virginia boy who sought fame and fortune in Southern California began
teaching singing classes at Los Alamitos High School. Opacic, in his 20s then, discovered he liked
teaching.

“It became equally, if not more of my passion,” he said.

Teaching also stirred Opacic’s entrepreneurial spirit. He co-authored and won a three-year state
Department of Education grant for $750,000 to start a public charter arts school. The grant funded the
school with $250,000 a year for three years, contingent on results at the end of each year.

Six months after receiving the grant in 1987, Opacic opened Orange County High School of the Arts in
Los Alamitos with 110 students. It moved to Santa Ana in 2000.

As the school got under way, Opacic went back to college to learn what he didn’t know—how to run a
school. He finished with a doctoral degree in education from the University of Southern California in
1994.

Opacic modeled the High School of the Arts after other arts schools, such as the North Carolina School
of the Arts and the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, made
famous by the movie and TV series “Fame.”

The school now is full with 1,350 students. Collectively, they have a 3.2 GPA and more than 90% go
on to a conservatory or college.

Students take standard academic classes from 7:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then they stay for three hours taking
arts classes, including opera, guitar and dance. Musical theater and visual arts are the two largest
programs.

“That’s what’s really unique and special about OCHSA,” he said.

Students audition to get into the school. About 1,000 have applied this year, Opacic said. The school
typically accepts about 300 new students each year. They come from 92 different cities. Some come by
bus and train.

Its yearly operating budget is $12 million, about 75% from the state. About $4 million comes from
corporate and personal donations.
The school has a $20 million lease in which it’ll own its building after 30 years. Rent is about $1.2
million a year. It also leases another building next door.

The school has drawn corporate support because businesses want people who can think creatively,
write and do math, Opacic said.

Supporters include Irvine-based Allergan Inc., Santa Ana-based First American Corp. and Walt Disney
Co.

Disneyland Resort in Anaheim hires parade performers from the school, which has an edge because it’s
close to Disneyland.

Retired auto dealer Lewis Webb and wife Margaret have been longtime supporters. Webb owned
dealerships in Los Angeles and Orange counties before he sold them to AutoNation Inc. for an
estimated $100 million.

The school began raising funds by reaching out to parents, then arts supporters.

This year’s recent annual fund-raising gala brought in $709,000, up $80,000 from the prior year. A
who’s who of OC helped make that happen. Front and center is Mike Harrah, the Santa Ana developer
who is also a musician. He’s long been a supporter of the school.

Opacic recently created an advisory board to accomplish six goals including teacher development and
meeting long-term financial needs. Board members include Bob Bassett, head of the film school at
Chapman University, Paul Folino, Emulex Corp.’s executive chairman, Raj Bhathal, chief executive of
Raj Manufacturing Inc., Sandra Segerstrom Daniels, Susan Samueli and Julia Argyros.

Plenty of the school’s students have gone on to have successful arts careers and have even experienced
fame.

Most recently, 1997 graduate Chad Doreck was one of the final contenders on NBC’s show “Grease:
You’re the One That I Want.” Doreck didn’t win the lead role but Opacic said he and others might get
cast in supporting roles for the Broadway production of “Grease.”

Opacic said he doesn’t pine for fame anymore.

“I haven’t had my moment on my Broadway stage,” he said.

He still performs, though. Usually, it’s related to a school event. But Opacic said he’s content watching
his students succeed.