How we work

Music | Dance | Performing Arts | Visual Arts

The Riverside Arts Academy is a vibrant, intensive arts mentoring program, that provides inspirational and creative arts education to children and youth of Riverside as a tool for community transformation. This award-winning program, under the innovative leadership of Founding President Collette Lee, provides over 50 hours of instruction weekly in art classes including strings, band, mariachi, orchestra, percussion, and more; to serve 2,000 students annually. The flagship ensembles: the Riverside Youth Orchestra, the Riverside Honor Band, the Riverside Children’s Choir, and the Mariachi Juvenil de Riverside perform at high-profile events and performances across the region. 

RAA’s impactful community board provides an active and supportive role in shaping the program and consists of influential community leaders from many sectors including Alvord Unified School District, California Baptist University, California University of San Bernardino, the City of Riverside, La Sierra University, Latino Network, Riverside City College, Riverside Fire Department, Riverside Parks and Recreation, Riverside Police Department, Riverside Unified School District, Windermere Tower Properties, University of California, Riverside and many others. 

The Eastside School of the Arts, which later became the Riverside School of the Arts, was the vision of Ward 2 City Councilman Andy Melendrez and was founded with the support of Ralph Nunez Park and Rec Director and a team of dedicated city staff. 

By July 2013, class sizes reached 500 students. Encountering issues of sustainable funding and closure, the community and local businesses including Windermere Tower Properties, The Latino Network, Altura Credit Union, The Group, and the Riverside Police Foundation made a commitment to raise funds to meet the needs of the community. 

Over the next two years, a high-profile and influential community board met alongside the city to create a strategic plan to focus on excellence in addition to access. A substantial campaign began to collaborate with higher educational institutions and professional artists. These efforts, backed by the new strategic plan’s emphasis on a high level of student performance in the arts, brought in partnerships with the University of California Riverside, California Baptist University, Riverside City College, La Sierra University, the Alvord Unified School District, the Riverside Unified School District, and California Riverside Ballet. 

In early 2015, due to a conflict with a fellow educational institute with a similar name, the Riverside School of the Arts became the Riverside Arts Academy. By June of 2015, RAA was offering programs at Arlanza, Casa Blanca and Eastside staffed with high-caliber instructors teaching a myriad of courses including ballet, folklorico, music, and art. RAA became an affiliate of the Harmony Project, a nationally

recognized program based in Los Angeles. With momentum and community awareness building, RAA received their largest private donation to date from sisters, Dolores Mumper, Elizabeth Stralka, and Kathleen Hamilton, and their organization “Art ‘N Kids.” That donation enabled RAA to hire its very first music director, Alpin Hong. 

In the Spring of 2016, the Riverside Arts Academy officially established its own stand-alone non-profit while maintaining a strong working relationship with the City of Riverside, under the leadership of the elected Founding President, Collette Lee, and a dedicated and empowered board of directors. In the fall of 2016, RAA began new, high-quality initiatives including a TK through 3rd-grade music and literacy program in collaboration with Alvord Unified School District. Riverside Unified School District’s Arts Programs, under the direction of Annemarie Guzy, Arts Specialist, commenced after-school instruction at three elementary school sites. The Riverside String Orchestra, under the direction of Alpin Hong was formed. During 2016 and 2017, RAA’s caliber and high-quality programming grew and grew 

In January 2018, a second site, RAA @ CBU, was started under Dr. Stephen Posegate and an additional strings program began at Foothill Elementary School in Alvord Unified School District. 

In the summer of 2018, Noemy Wheeler became interim Music Director, and the First Summer Music program started with over 110 students. In July 2018, the Riverside Arts Academy, in collaboration with the Riverside Unified School District, was awarded its first major grant in the amount of $45,000 from the PRESTO grant through El Sistema USA, a prestigious initiative promoting emerging music programs. Soon thereafter The Riverside Arts Academy became an affiliate of the El Sistema USA, an internationally recognized program. 

In November 2018, the Riverside Arts Academy hired a new music director and conductor of the Riverside Youth Orchestra, Dr. Gene Moon. Under Dr. Moon’s direction, the Riverside Youth Orchestra was launched as a full orchestra program for youth, the first in Riverside’s history outside of the school systems. In 2018, there were over 2,500 participants, and an additional 1,910 students enrolled in the music Boost program at Alvord Unified. In 2019, both sites at RAA@CBU and RAA@Cesar Chavez reached maximum enrollment numbers. 

RAA exercised a lot of flexibility and resilience in 2020 and a majority of 2021. With the surge of COVID-19 and the subsequent closures of our schools and community facilities, RAA had to quickly transition our music instruction to an online format. Our quick thinking and “all in this together” mentality proved to be successful.

Enrollment for our online program averaged 160 students per week and we successfully retained all of our Teaching Artists for the remainder of the school year. 

In the summer of 2023, RAA hired our first Executive and Artistic Director, Adam Karelin. Adam has an exceptional vision for RAA and his sharp and innovative leadership is propelling RAA to new heights this year and beyond.

Riverside Arts Academy continues to embrace an attitude of service to our youth and hopes to change the course of our city by using music and the arts as the vehicle to keep kids engaged and raise academic achievement, which in the long run will create a higher quality of life for all in our city.

The Mission

Riverside Arts Academy provides access and connection to the arts with a focus on music, as a way of changing the trajectory of the lives of underserved youth ages 4-17.
We will accomplish this by:

  • Advocating for music education in our community as an equalizer in our schools and community for our youth by providing free or low-cost instruction and instruments
  • Focusing and creating a diverse music community of the highest quality that is rich with cultural, and social opportunities in music and performance opportunities
  • Coaching and being a resource for existing and future music teachers, school districts, colleges, and universities with real-life teaching experiences in their musical disciplines with the goal of staying and working in our region
  • Advocating the importance of music, as it relates to literacy in our schools, and collecting data to support this mission
  • Developing informed and inquiring minds through exposure to community leaders and peer-to-peer mentoring
  • Through its community and education programs, offering the highest quality music/arts instruction and performance opportunities for students of all ages to improve their academic outcomes and potential to achieve in their lives

Honors & Awards

2016 California State Parks and Recreation Dept. Champion of the Community Award

2016 Fair Housing Social Justice Award in Education

2016 Raincross Education Award

2017 Riverside County Medical Association Outstanding Contribution to the Community Award

2017 Raincross Community Leadership Award

2019 Riverside Police Foundation Award

2019 Inland Empire Economic Development Art Award

2020 Riverside Downtown Partnership Arts and Culture Award

2020 Rotary World Peace Community Hero Award

“As a long time teacher, I appreciate the positive impact music and art have on learning and brain development. In fact, my son works in the music business, an interest that started when he was very young and fostered by teachers and family. Unfortunately, not all schools can provide broad arts and music programming, which makes organizations like the Riverside Arts Academy invaluable to our communities and deserving of our support.”

Jose Medina — California State Assembly Member, 61st District

Our Instructors


  • Melissa Blanco
  • Spenser Kalnin


  • Shane Hughes
  • Nestor Pardo Morales
  • Rachel Garbutt
  • Jocelyne Esparza
  • Melissa Blanco


  • Traivon Williams
  • Paulina Reynoso
  • Ernesto Herrera


  • Adam Karelin
  • Ruth Noemy Wheeler

Specialized Instruction

  • Antonio Castañeda, Mariachi
  • Ricardo Paz, Guitar
  • Satchel Henneman, Guitar

RAA Staff

  • Adam Karelin, Executive and Artistic Director
  • Sandra Arrivillaga Montenegro, Director of Finance and Administration
  • Krystin Cowan, Curriculum Specialist
  • Leti Bernard, Programs Manager