by Mary Boone
Sure, they text message obsessively and walk around with their IPods turned up way too loud (they’re teenagers, after all), but students at the Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA) are just as likely to spend their time between classes discussing India’s caste system or how the prisoners in Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave” represent the state of ordinary human existence.
“When you first come to SOTA, it’s a little surprising how many students are really excited about learning, both in and out of class,” says junior Ruth Nalty. “At other schools you’ve got some students who are motivated, but because we all applied to be here I think there’s more excitement about learning. This just isn’t like other places; I feel really lucky to be here.”
Nalty is one of approximately 450 students who attend SOTA, a public high school located in downtown Tacoma.
SOTA was started in 2001 by co-director Jon Ketler ’78, who previously was a ceramics teacher at Stadium High School. Working with a group of fellow educators, artists, and local business people—and a $450,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—Ketler helped create a new kind of public institution, part high school, part non-profit that funds working artists.
Those artists teach visual arts, theater, music, dance, and writing, while incorporating traditional subjects into the learning experience. It’s all part of a broader principle called project-based education, and it’s working. The school is national model for arts education.
SOTA uses the lure of art to attract students like Nalty, who are passionate about learning. Once they’re hooked, those students quickly learn it’s more than just drawing and dancing that set this school apart from the typical comprehensive high school. A few obvious differences:
The school is small. With just 450 students, it’s a quarter the size of Lincoln High School, Tacoma’s second smallest public high school.
Weekly staff meetings center around discussion of students’ successes and challenges. “We name names,” says Melissa Moffett ’94, the school’s community developer. “If there’s concern about a student, we talk about it. We know which teacher has the closest connection to a specific student. 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.”
Students want to be there. A rigorous application, interview, and audition process helps identify not necessarily the most academically or artistically gifted students, but rather those best suited to the nontraditional setting. About half the students who apply are accepted.
The best proof that the system works is the school’s impressive 98 percent graduation rate. SOTA also scored the highest 2007 standardized test scores in math, reading, and science in the South Sound.
The school is built upon partnerships with arts and cultural organizations, ranging from the University of Washington and Metro Parks Tacoma to the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
Collaboration reigns. Drama students perform monologues penned by creative writing students. Faculty members team up to teach multifaceted courses, such as “All About Me: DNA Portraits in Music and Art.” And teachers work with community organizations to create courses with real-life applications. Graphic design students, for example, have been called upon to create logos for partner organizations.
Eight Puget Sound alumni work as full-time teachers or administrators and contribute daily to the school’s success. In addition to Jon Ketler and Melissa Moffett, the staff includes: Cyrus Brown B.S.’03, M.A.T.’06, Johnny Devine B.S.’05, M.A.T.’06, Liz Hirschl ’10, Doris McGee ’74, Dave Savage M.A.T.’98, Michele Shepard M.A.T.’99, and Zach Varnell ’03.
“The biggest difference between us and other schools is that we treat students like adults and instructors like the professionals they are,” says Jon.” We’re built on the premise that students make the most of their learning when they take ownership of their education.”
That sense of ownership, says SOTA student Nalty, encourages students to step up to challenges.
“SOTA teachers treat students like equals,” she says. “You want to do well because you want to be worthy of that respect.”