With an approach centered on building community, the downtown School of the Arts is improving overall student performance while encouraging creativity.
On Elise Clark’s second day at her new high school, the sophomore was surprised to find herself immersed in a conversation about Plato’s The Allegory of the Cave. Here were 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds — representatives of Generation Y, known for its devotion to text messaging and MySpace — sorting out Platonic notions of reality and the nature of truth-seeking.
“These kids were confident and engaged and not afraid to share what they were thinking,” recalls Clark. “I had to keep telling myself: We’re talking about Plato. That just doesn’t happen at most high schools. And that’s when it clicked for me: this place isn’t like most high schools.”
Clark is one of around 400 students who attend Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA), a public high school in an urban setting that uses instruction in visual and performing arts to engage students and provide focus for academic achievement.
Created in 2001 by a group of educators, artists and local business people with the support of the local school district and one of the first grants to encourage small schools made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, SOTA attracts students who are both interested in the arts and passionate about learning. It’s this dual focus on artistic talent and academic excellence that set this school apart from the typical comprehensive high school.
It’s a nontraditional approach that’s not for everyone, yet there’s no shortage of students interested in taking part in this experiment in secondary education. A rigorous application and interview process helps identify those best suited to the SOTA program; only about half the students who apply (300 a year on average) are accepted. Proof that the screening system is working can be seen in school’s negligible .7 annual percent dropout rate, dramatically below the district-wide rate of 11.5 percent.
SOTA’s basic academic requirements are the same as those at other Tacoma public high schools. As measured by the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test though, SOTA students are far out-performing the rest of the District. In 2004-2005, for example, 84.8 percent of SOTA students met WASL standards in reading and 80 percent met the standard in writing. Comparatively, just 59.6 percent and 54.8 percent of all Tacoma Public School high school students met the reading and writing standards, respectively.
“The big difference is that we treat students like adults and instructors like the professionals they are,” says SOTA founder and co-director Jon Ketler, a credentialed educator and administrator who also happens to be an artist. “We’re built on the premise that students make the most of their learning when they take ownership of their education.”
“Teachers here treat students like equals,” confirms 2006 graduate Sam Edwards. “You want to do well because you want to be worthy of that respect.”
The scale of the program is undoubtedly a factor in student success. SOTA is small and administrators promise it will stay that way. Enrollment here won’t grow much beyond where it is currently. By comparison, Lincoln, the next smallest of Tacoma’s public high schools, has approximately 1,600 students. “If you’re in a large school and you’re passionate about something, you share that passion with a few of your fellow students and maybe a faculty member,” observes Terri Placentia, head of SOTA’s commercial art department. “At SOTA every student knows every student, all the faculty members know all the students and we all know about each other’s passions. In a way, we’re like a fan club for one another.”
The SOTA faculty numbers 30 and comprises experts in the humanities and sciences, Spanish, math and, of course, the arts, including vocal and instrumental music, painting, drawing and photography and theatre and dance. Collaboration is key for teachers here. Team-taught courses weaving together threads of multiple disciplines such as “The Marriage of Music and Math” are an important part of the core curriculum.
SOTA is a three-year program; those involved in inventing the school felt that students need a transitional year between middle school and life on an open high school campus. SOTA aspirants attend 9th grade elsewhere and transfer as sophomores. This plan provides SOTA more mature students, and allows it to maintain connections to the rest of the city’s high schools.
All SOTA classes are mixed grade: sophomores, juniors and seniors study together and get to know each other. Each school year starts for students, faculty and staff alike (many parents join in, too) with three days of trust and team-building activities at Olympia’s Black Lake Camp.
The faculty meets weekly to assess student progress — and problems. “We talk about our students for a couple hours,” explains Melissa Moffett, the school’s community developer. “Somebody will say, ‘Hey, has anybody noticed Jordan seems a little distant?’ If there’s concern, or somebody knows something about a student’s situation that would be beneficial for the rest of us to know, we talk about it. We talk to kids one-on-one after school. We call them at home. We do our best not to let anybody fall through the cracks.”
A testament to the caring and cohesive community that has formed at SOTA is the way students and faculty supported each recently in a time of crisis. When instrumental music and songwriting teacher Paul Eliot’s stepdaughter, Jasmine Ball, died in a July 22 rafting accident, SOTA students rallied to produce a benefit concert in her honor.
More than 250 people attended the concert, which raised over $3,600. “Our capacity was 150 people,” says Moffitt. “When we reached that, people just stood and waited for other people to leave. It was this tremendous show of family, which is what we are.”
What about the art part? How does learning to make creative work figure in SOTA’s program, which supports specializations in vocal or instrumental music, dance, technical theatre, video production, drawing, painting and photography?
The arts are an integral element of the curriculum here, not merely electives. “For those of us who care about art, that differentiation is critical,” Placentia maintains. “A student who loves theatre but attends a traditional high school might only get to take a couple theatre classes over the course of four years. Our students take two classes every single semester in the discipline of their choice.”
SOTA, however, is not a reborn version of FAME, the all-singing, all-dancing high school that was breeding ground for future musical comedy stars in the 1980s movie and TV series. The school’s goal is not necessarily to train the next generation of artists, but rather to help students discover what it is that they care about and give them the confidence to pursue their dreams.
“We offer high-quality arts classes and it’s natural that some of our students will go on to become professional artists,” explains SOTA dance instructor Robin Jaecklein. “But it’s more likely and more rewarding for me to think that most of our students — regardless of what they do professionally — will be lifelong arts advocates and supporters and audiences.”
The arts provide opportunities for in-depth teaching and learning and for connections to be drawn across subject areas. Placentia’s life drawing students, for example, spend time in the art studio and in a cadaver lab at Tacoma Community College studying anatomy and physiology. “These students aren’t just drawing what they see,” she says. “They’re really learning about the human body from the inside out. Our students can sample disciplines — maybe they’ve never taken a dance class and they want to do that. But, beyond those first tastes, we’re able to expose students to deeper, more demanding coursework in their chosen field.”
Supplementing the full-time faculty’s strengths are upwards of a dozen adjunct instructors with specialties in disciplines as wide-ranging as hip hop, videography, graphic arts, acting, creative writing and jazz performance. Adjunct instructors collectively teach as many as 24 courses and are paid for entirely by grants and donations to SOTA. They further enrich the SOTA curriculum: students learn from and collaborate with a variety of working artists active and accomplished in their fields. The larger Tacoma community benefits, too, through the employment provided to professional artists who contribute to the city’s expanding “creative economy.”
Another feature of the SOTA program is the three-week internships juniors and seniors are encouraged to pursue during the school’s J- (for January) term. Many of these, though not all, are work opportunities or personal projects that are arts-related — writing and producing a short film, working on a magazine staff, interning with a local architect. Student interns have received training in arts education through Tacoma Art Museum’s Youth Connect program; worked with children with special needs in the Tacoma Public Schools; and gained photographic experience creating catalogs at REI. One recent graduate spent her J-term working at a local hospital. “She was in a neo-natal care unit and she came away from that experience knowing in her heart that was what she wanted to do,” Placentia recalls. “For her, caring for babies became a passion.”
A key philosophical component of SOTA’s approach to educating high school students involves community engagement and service. Virtually all of Tacoma is the school’s campus — by design, not by accident. “We’re not defined by four walls or by real estate,” says Ketler. “The thing that really makes this work is that we’re integrated into the community. ”
Much of the school is housed in three downtown buildings: administrative offices and Spanish classes are located in a Tacoma School District-owned facility at 1818 Tacoma Ave; a 20,000-square-foot visual arts and sciences building at 1950 Pacific Ave, which the School District is in the process of purchasing; and the Performing Arts Center in the Ted Brown Building at 1117 Broadway, a leased space.
Students use public transportation to move between venues or travel on foot. They have 20 minutes between classes and can earn credit in physical education for walking to and from class.
The school’s downtown location means students have access to Tacoma’s arts infrastructure. The Tacoma Public Library, Washington State History Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Glass and Broadway Center for the Performing Arts are important educational resources and satellite learning centers.
Indeed, the school is built upon partnerships with arts and cultural organizations ranging from the University of Washington to Tacoma Metro Parks. UW-Tacoma, for example, provides space for SOTA math and humanities classes and makes use of SOTA art studios for some of its own classes. Metro Parks pays the salaries of some SOTA support staff; in turn, those staff create programming for the park district, much of which is held in SOTA’s facilities.
“We’re always trying to figure out how we can create connections with other organizations,” says Ketler. “Being where we are has made it easier to sit down with our neighbors and say, ‘Here’s what we can do to make you more successful. What can you do to make us more successful?’ When these connections really work, we’re saving time and money for both us and our many downtown partners.”
The concept of a high school without a discreet campus rooted smack in the urban center of Tacoma can be a tough sell for some parents. Fortunately, enough families are sufficiently open-minded and adventuresome to make the School of the Arts an important success story for their children and the community after only five years. “When I first started talking to my parents about coming here,” says Elise Clark, “they had this image of an alternative high school as a place you went if you couldn’t make it in a regular school.” But the SOTA senior, who plans to attend art school, perhaps at San Francisco’s Academy of Art, brought them around to understanding her excitement: “Now, they know that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“When I came here, I didn’t know I could draw and now it’s become my passion,” she says. “Learning what makes me happy has been cool, but I really feel lucky to be at a school where kids want to learn and teachers want to teach. It sounds so basic but, for me, it’s made all the difference.” ‹
Photos: Chris Tumbusch and courtesy of SOTA