Donald Munro

Valley high school students encouraged to apply for state arts summer school

Actor James Franco, right, shown in a scene from the Hulu series “11.22.63,” is an alum of the California State Summer School for the Arts.
Actor James Franco, right, shown in a scene from the Hulu series “11.22.63,” is an alum of the California State Summer School for the Arts. AP

Rick Dorris needed a little coaxing to apply for the prestigious California State Summer School for the Arts for high school students.

The year was 1994. The Madera High School student loved theater but was insecure about his abilities. A trusted drama teacher, Ginger Latimer, encouraged him to apply for the four-week summer program held at California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita.

“I was petrified,” says Dorris, who still lives in Madera. “But to get to go to the actual school, it was one of the best experiences of my entire life.”

The people who run the summer school – affectionately known as “See-suh,” for CSSSA – want to encourage more students from the Central Valley to apply for the program. The application deadline is Feb. 28. (Details online at

The school accepts 520 students from seven disciplines: animation, creative writing, dance, visual arts, theater, music and film. Supported both by state funds and a nonprofit foundation, the school has a charge to reflect the geographical, cultural and economic diversity of the state.

“We are very interested in increasing the number of applicants from the Central Valley,” says Heidi Kershaw, executive director of the CSSSA Foundation, which supports the school. “We think there’s a lot of talent there. We haven’t been able to reach them like we would like to.”

Coordinating a regional outreach program is Gayle Surabian of Dinuba, a former Fresno-area arts administrator who helped found the school nearly 30 years ago, served as a trustee and is a big fan of the opportunities it gives students. Thanks to a targeted financial aid grant from powerhouse ag firm The Wonderful Company, there’s a special push to reach students at Washington Union High School, Roosevelt School of the Arts and Sanger High School in Fresno County; Madera South High School in Madera County; and Avenal High School in Kings County.

While those schools are getting some extra attention, any California teens enrolled in grades 9 through 12 may apply. And students from anywhere in the central San Joaquin Valley are highly encouraged.

Tuition for the school, which runs the last three weeks in July and the first week in August, is $1,700. Financial aid is available to all students depending on need, and about 40 percent of students qualify. The application requires a portfolio that can take a while to put together, so students are encouraged not to wait till the last minute.

Michael Fields, the school’s director, has fond memories of Fresno from 1994, the year that Dorris attended, because of an emergency move made by CSSSA to Fresno State after the Northridge earthquake.

“We were really welcomed by the community,” he says.

There’s a lot of competition for places at the school. There were about 1,500 applicants last year. The animation track has the most applicants, Fields says.

Notable alumni of the school include actor Zac Efron, singer Katharine McPhee, author Margaret Dilloway, animator Sanjay Patel (“The Incredibles”) and actress Kirsten Vangsness (“Criminal Minds”), who grew up in Porterville.

But you don’t necessarily have to be a polished artist to get accepted. “You need the aptitude,” Fields says. “But we do look at potential. We look for an original (creative) voice.”

Some schools in the area already have proud CSSSA traditions, says Latimer, who has taught in Madera since 1992. (The south campus of Madera High School, where she started, became a separate school, Madera South, in 2007.) “I had numerous kids attend CSSSA over the years from my program  as many as five in one summer,” she says.

Dorris, her student who attended the summer school in 1994, now works for the Madera Arts Council. He encourages students to apply for the school – even if they’re unsure of themselves.

“If they’re letting fear stop them, or doubt, just do it,” he says. “I’m glad I did.”