An Interview with Dr. Ralph Opacic, Founder & Ex-Executive Director: Orange County School of the Arts, Ex-Chief Executive Officer: California School of the Arts.

An Interview with Dr. Ralph Opacic, Founder & Ex-Executive Director, Orange County School of the Arts Ex-Chief Executive Officer, California School of the Arts

Ralph S. Opacic founded the award-winning Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) in 1987 and served as Executive Director till his retirement in 2021. In 2017, he helped establish OCSA’s first regional campus, California School of the Arts in San Gabriel Valley (CSArts-SGV), where he served as Chief Executive Officer.

Dr. Opacic is credited with assembling the finest arts and academic instructors in Southern California, as well as creating opportunities for young artists to develop their talents to their greatest potential.

He is a distinguished arts education leader with over three decades of experience. As the Founder of the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), he passionately nurtured young artists, leaving an indelible legacy and a profound impact on arts education in Southern California and across the nation.

What began as a young man’s dream developed into a lifelong commitment to nurturing the next generation of young artists. Driven by a deep passion for the performing arts, he initially sought a career as a professional musician, which led him to California.

However, it was within the walls of a classroom that Dr. Opacic found his true calling. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in music, he embarked on a transformative journey as the choir director at Los Alamitos High School.

In 1987, Dr. Opacic secured a pivotal state grant, fueling his dream to create a world-class arts school led by professional working artists, providing a clear pathway to higher education and careers in the arts. What initially started as a humble after-school program with just four conservatories soon outgrew its space in Los Alamitos.

Graduates of OCSA are consistently recruited by the nation’s top universities, a testament to the quality of education provided. One of Dr. Opacic’s central goals /was to provide a rich outreach program, offer accessible art activities and classes to the local community, and make the arts more inclusive.

Ralph Opacic’s remarkable journey in arts education began with a Bachelor’s degree in Music in 1981, a testament to his passion for the arts. Just a year later, he obtained his teaching credentials, marking the start of his career.

In 1987, he founded the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), a pivotal moment that would shape the future of arts education in Southern California. His commitment to educational excellence led him to earn a Master’s in Education Administration in 1990 and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Southern California in 1994, solidifying his position as a leader in the field of arts education.

He has shaped the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) into a top-tier institution, ranking in the top 3% of California high schools. His dedication to fostering young talent has earned OCSA recognition as a model arts education program by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Opacic’s journey, from aspiring to be the next Billy Joel and Barry Manilow, was redirected towards choral music by the influential Frank Pooler. He believes that passion, dedication, perseverance, and unwavering vision are the cornerstones of success, embodying the saying “Vision is hitting a target that no one else can see”.

What is a typical day in your life? And how do you make it productive?

Before retirement, I’d start my day at the gym at 6 AM, then read emails and meeting minutes from the previous day so I could focus on macro people issues. I joked about being at the gym with the person who opened it, helping them turn on the machines so I could get my workout in quickly.

Now retired, I spend my first hour centering myself with prayer and meditation, then identify critical tasks for the day to avoid distractions and focus on what’s essential.

How do you bring ideas to life?

When I worked full-time, I’d bring together the right people to help develop and execute my good ideas. My dear friend and mentor, Paul Folino, CEO of Emulex and a leading Orange County philanthropist for 20 years told me that A players surround themselves with A+ players, while B players surround themselves with C players.

I consider myself a B-player, so I always traded up. I surrounded myself with people who could take an idea, develop it, and implement it in a way that made it better than what I started with. My strategy was to surround myself with people who were smarter than me and could take a basic idea to the next level.

Even in retirement, I worked constantly. I consulted with schools across the country, and that’s where I want to return. I don’t need to work 60 hours a week anymore, but I want to use my 40 years of experience to help schools, educational leaders, arts leaders, and nonprofit leaders succeed.

What is one trend that excites you?

What trend excites me most? It’s the growing focus on inclusivity and equity in education. Everyone should have access to the same information and education, regardless of their background or circumstances. This trend is leveling the playing field and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to succeed.

What is one habit that helps you be productive?

I spend the first half or one hour of the day trying to center myself, and as I do that, I also try to prioritize the essential things for the day.

It’s so easy to get distracted and lost in the minutia of responding to emails and text messages, so I try to get those things out of the way. What really helps is looking at the world from a macro standpoint rather than looking at all the minutiae of things. 

What advice would you give to your younger self? 

Finding your passion, practicing for 10,000 hours, persevering through challenges, and having a clear vision are essential for success. Stephen Covey emphasizes the importance of finding your voice and inspiring others to do the same.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule suggests that mastery requires deliberate practice. Randy Pausch teaches that perseverance is key to overcoming obstacles. I paraphrase Arnold Schopenhauer’s quote on talent as “vision is hitting a target no one else can see.”

Finally, I believe that organizations that focus on culture, mission, and core values will far exceed and outlast those that focus solely on strategy.

Tell us something you believe that almost nobody agrees with you on.

I believe in a meritocracy where all students have access to education, especially those with talent, potential, passion, and drive. Parents who value education know that it’s the pathway to success.

The positive side of this trend is that it provides access, equity, and pathways for all young people. The downside is the expectation to lower standards so that everyone can succeed.

This is happening with SATs, college admissions, and advanced placement courses. High-performing schools are diluting their programs to make them more accessible, but this is the wrong approach.

I’ve been criticized for believing in meritocracy, but I stand by it. I ran a school with 2,400 students, the most diverse in Orange County: one-third Hispanic, one-third Asian, one-third White, and a small percentage of African American.

My students came from all socioeconomic backgrounds, from families on federal free and reduced lunch to millionaires and billionaires. Tuition was free, so students from all walks of life could receive a private school education.

I believe that quality education should be accessible to all people, regardless of their ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I also believe in public education, but I believe there needs to be equity and access to excellence.

Most people agree with that, but where I differ is in my belief in meritocracy. I believe that highly talented students should have access to the finest arts education, just as they should in other fields like technology and academics. There needs to be a meritocratic hierarchy in public education.

The Orange County School of the Arts and the California School of the Arts, which I founded, attract students with acumen, talent, and passion for the arts. Public education has come to believe that creating mediocrity for all is the way to achieve equality, access, and inclusivity.

I believe the opposite. We need to create pathways for students who excel, even if that means not all students will follow the same path. Not every student is a dancer, singer, visual artist, or graphic designer.

But if we are going to allow access to all students, then we need to have pathways for those who excel, ensuring equal access while applying meritocracy.

What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else to do so?

Recognize and celebrate the dedicated people in your organization who are working hard to achieve the vision, mission, and core values. Invest in them and help them to succeed.

As CEO and executive director, I saw my role as a servant leader who clears the runway of distractions so that my team can be successful. I believe that the legacy of any organization is its culture and that employees should feel valued.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

When I feel overwhelmed or unfocused, I turn to a moment of reflection and centering. In my retired life, the first hour is dedicated to prayer and meditation, allowing me to regain focus and identify the critical tasks for the day.

This ritual helps me avoid distractions and concentrate on what truly matters, steering clear of the minutiae that can easily overwhelm me.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance your career? And please explain how 

Paul Folino, the CEO of Emulex and Orange County philanthropist of the year, taught me the importance of surrounding myself with better, smarter, and more experienced people. Their acumen in business, finance, real estate, and the arts helped me to flourish.

One failure in your career: how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take from it?

In 1987, I started the Orange County School of the Arts with 120 students. By the time we moved from Los Alamitos to Santa Ana due to facility issues, we had grown to 500 students and our budget had increased from $1 million to $10 million.

We handled everything from IT to arts to academics to facilities to human resources, and I didn’t realize how complex it would be. We almost went bankrupt during the process.

We started in a seven-story commercial office building in California. The learning curve was steep, and we soon had to make a $20 million payment for the building, furniture, fixtures, equipment, structure, and supplies.

Due to a misunderstanding about scalability, we defaulted on the payment, and in 2022, our nice afterschool arts program was on the brink of bankruptcy. Our lack of understanding and experience almost cost us the school.

What made the difference was a group of ten people working in finance, real estate, banking, and running large corporations who mentored me and taught me what I needed to know to take the school to the next level, from a $1 million to a $40 million entity.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I believe in creating pathways for kids, and one business idea I’d give away is to educate parents in underserved communities about college matriculation. Parents want their kids to be successful, but they may not know how to help them.

We need to show young people and their parents how to get to where they want to be. Some colleges have counselors, but they can be unaffordable.

I’m giving away this business idea because I’m not going to do it myself, but I would appreciate it if someone did. Let’s educate every student and their parents about the opportunities available in higher education.

It’s all about education and the parents. The parents who understand the value of education will jump at the chance to help their kids succeed.

What is one piece of software that helps you be productive and how do you use it?

I’m not the most tech-savvy person, but I don’t know how I’d live without my cell phone, texts, emails, and calendars. I use Microsoft Office to schedule meetings and coordinate my emails, and Microsoft Word when I need to.

I can do Excel in a pinch, but I’m not great at it. I’m a bit behind the curve technologically, but I can’t imagine my life without my cell phone. It’s probably the most valuable piece of equipment I own.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Recently, I took the retired director of facilities and maintenance to brunch to thank him for his contributions to the school. He opened the school in 2000 and was in charge of the facility, HVAC, electricity, security, and more. It was heartwarming to hear him reflect on the difference he made.

I do this with former employees so they understand the impact they made on students and the OSCA community. Educators don’t hear it enough, but their work changes lives.

Next, I’ll be meeting with two academic teachers and a counselor. I strongly believe that we need to recognize the impact on all employees, regardless of their position.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast (or both) from which you’ve gotten much value and why?

My favorite books are Stephen Covey’s “The 8th Habit,” Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Outliers,” Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture,” and Jim Collins “Good to Great.” These foundational books have taught me the importance of finding my voice, investing in myself, persevering, and building a strong culture through vision, mission, and core values.

What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?

I’m currently watching the David Beckham mini-series. Beckham was one of the best soccer players in the world, but he was ostracized and ridiculed after making a mistake in a World Cup game. His story of perseverance in the face of adversity is inspiring.

My wife, Sherry, and I also enjoy watching romantic comedies. We love seeing people find true love and discover their ‘happily ever after’. It’s heartwarming.

Ralph’s Social Media:
Ralph Opacic on LinkedIn
Ralph Opacic on Facebook
Ralph Opacic on YouTube
Ralph Opacic on Instagram 
Ralph Opacic on X

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