ChiArts Executive Director Jose Ochoa Wants to be An Advocate for Students

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by Mia Schoenbeck

As a teenager in Robstown, Texas, Jose Ochoa would watch PBS and movie musicals, not knowing that he would be influenced by them so much that he would eventually create The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts).

Now, at 43, Ochoa is the school’s executive director. With the job of making sure ChiArts upholds its mission statement, providing for a diverse group of “artistically promising scholar-artists” — as well as the job of overseeing the different departments at ChiArts — Ochoa has just as busy a day as students do.

I asked Ochoa about his hopes and dreams for the new school year, what he was most excited about, and where could ChiArts grow.

“Students give me life,” Ochoa said. “The way the students react, learn, absorb, and just do the work is incredible, I couldn’t ask for more.”

Ochoa has dreamed of making the school a place for children to have the opportunities they might not have otherwise. And he feels like the school is doing well.

“ChiArts has exceeded my wildest expectations,” he said.

But Ochoa added that there is still room to grow.

Right now, Ochoa is focused on making the school compassionate, or trauma informed, culturally responsive, practicing restorative practices, and upholding the five core values of ChiArts. He wants the conservatories to allow for choice, to allow for the mistakes and opportunities the Western European method of teaching arts ignores.

One of his greatest desires is for students at ChiArts to be able to see themselves in their work, environment, and in their classes. For that to happen, teachers, instructors, and the overall staff must continue to recognize what affects how they work, how they teach, and how they act with students.

“We can’t make excuses,” Ochoa said, explaining that compassion can only come from an understanding of the many different students and perspectives that make up ChiArts. “The school was created to build diversity in the arts in Chicago, so our focus is to continue being a diverse school.”

Ochoa’s office is comfortable and organized, with student artwork adorning the walls. Networking, directing, organizing are all staples of Ochoa’s work. But the job that only he can do is to prepare students of ChiArts for their lives outside of high school, and creating space for those who want to create and who wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise.

I asked Ochoa to tell me one thing he’d like say to the ChiArts community. He smiled and said that there was so much he’d like to say to us, but he settled on this: “I love how the students really use their own voice, and are creating art and just becoming advocates for themselves. Those who are successful are those that know their voice and use it. This is a place where you can make mistakes. This is a place where you can figure out who you are.”

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