I always loved going back to school. Ok, I admit, that probably says something about me, but it also speaks to the quality of the educational environments that I experienced in Tacoma. SOTA in particular ignited excitement in me - seeing my friends, being downtown, heading to camp, learning in a way that required creative thinking and problem solving – I loved my high school. I’m thankful that I learned how to be part of a community that celebrates differences without using them as an excuse to divide us, a community that believes that everyone deserves the same, high quality educational experiences, not just the lucky few.

I'm proud to be a SOTA alum, and I'm excited about all the ways that innovative education is spreading through Elements of Education Partners, in collaboration with Tacoma Public Schools. As we open IDEA and get ready for the new year at SOTA and SAMI, I think about the 1,200 students at the schools and how we can pass the legacy of creative thinking and problem solving to them. I hope they cherish this education, and they see the ways they can use their education to love and serve their family, neighbors, community, and world.

Thank you for your partnership. Through your gifts of time, money, and support, we’re able to serve more students and bring innovative education to an ever-widening circle.


Elizabeth Hirschl ’06 SOTA
Director of Development
Elements of Education

Natalie Mienko, Self Portrait

Natalie Mienko, Self Portrait

I suspect you’ll notice a recurring theme in the alumni interviews with regards to their high praise of Terri Placentia. Her classes are rigorous, the bar is set high and students know it; however, this is combined with compassion, caring, and a sense of humor that earns students’ trust and makes them want to achieve. For Terri, teaching is about overcoming fear, developing problem-solving skills, cultivating creativity, re-empowering students to be curious, and reinforcing perseverance. She has perfected the art of posing open-ended problems and then being delighted by the surprising results from students. To date, she has never repeated an assignment. When I heard that, I was a little jealous of the students in the 10 years since I graduated and thought, “but I want to do ALL the assignments,” an attitude that exemplifies the desire to learn and grow that Terri develops in her classes.

I’ve always been impressed by how well Terri teaches a wide variety of skill levels. When I asked her about this, she simply said that the concepts are the same whether you’re teaching an 80 year old or an 8 year old, the only thing that changes is the language that you use. She also noted that what you’re really trying to overcome in teaching is the fear of “I can’t.”  She says, “It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching physics or how to make a cake: the fear of failure is what you’re trying to overcome. People keep themselves at a certain level because they are fearful. If you can tap into it, the innate human curiosity rises above the fear.”  

Terri taps into this curiosity by posing broad problems, intentionally designed to teach basic skills without being overly prescriptive. She says, “Art is the great generator and supporter of creativity and curiosity. There are two parts: process and product. When you’re learning, especially when you’re young, it’s about process not product. You get to discover materials and manipulate them and ask, ‘How does it feel? What happens when I manipulate it? What happens if I mix certain colors together?’ There’s nothing abstract about it at all – it’s experiential. It’s an important part of a child’s discovery of the world. This kind of freedom feeds the creative process. As you get results that you end up liking, you start to gain confidence.” The students in her classes learn to trust themselves and their intuition while learning artistic concepts that employ the language of art: the elements and principles of design. By playing with line, form, perspective, composition, and light, students are empowered and encouraged to solve the problems in their own way.

Zack Martin, Self Portrait with Terri in the mirror

Zack Martin, Self Portrait with Terri in the mirror

Students are shown not only how to think critically about their own work but also the work of other students. After each assignment, students participate in a group critiques, allowing everyone in the class to see how they each arrived at a different answer to a given problem. It’s a chance to build each other up, both by noting what is working well and what could be improved. I told Terri that I regularly find myself in situations where I really want good feedback and it’s hard to find. She laughed and said that it’s not a skill most people practice effectively. Most people are taught a binary method of feedback, either heap praise on you or pick out the negative, there’s very little nuance, and that’s reinforced by the way we are graded in school. She notes, “Our education system doesn’t recognize that people learn by making mistakes. We focus so much on ‘this is wrong’ and ‘you got the answer wrong.’ Rather than saying ‘this didn’t work out the way you thought. How could you have done it differently?’” This type of feedback is intimately integrated into the learning experience in Terri’s classes – students are pushed to be better without fear of being put down.

Terri teaches life through art: how to learn from failure, think critically about the world around you, and respect the ways that others’ have solved the problem at hand. And, indeed, art seems like a very appropriate place to learn about life, or as Terri says, “Art is the great binder – it holds everything together. It’s what’s left of most ancient civilizations. When there is no art, there is no life, there is no spirit. Art finishes the story.”

Erma was always one of the most talented visual artists in our class. I was lucky enough to catch up with her via email and hear about her current work and how SOTA impacted her.

Looking back to your time at SOTA, what most stands out to you as interesting or unusual or positive? Why?
Looking back, what really stood out for me was how interactive SOTA was as a whole. How they cared for their students for one. But the biggest thing to me were the trips and midterm activities. It was so different that it changed my whole perspective of how high school was for me. It made high school actually fun! I mean every year, before school even started, we would all go to Black Lake and stay there for a few days just to hang out, get to know our class and new people. That was the coolest thing! No other high school has done that and there's no way they could. SOTA was a small but very close knit school and it made it so easy (especially for me) to learn and develop close relationships with my teachers and classmates.

Which teachers impacted you the most during your time at SOTA? What lessons have you taken away from your interactions with them?
The one teacher and who is also my favorite teacher, was Mrs. Terri Placentia. She was like a god to me, no joke! I enjoyed EVERY class with her. I think the reason she had a great impact towards me was that she was the only person at SOTA that could see that I had potential. That I had the skill set to go very far in whatever I chose for a career. And she would always tell me that too! With her confidence in me and my abilities helped me realized that I wasn't just a "in class doodler." That I could 'reach for the stars' if you will! 

Erma working in her shop

Erma working in her shop

What's been your path after leaving SOTA? How did your time at SOTA influence that path?
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to become an animator. Preferably: a traditional character animator. Animation always fascinated me as a kid. And that's exactly what I studied in college after graduating from SOTA. I studied animation and illustration at Savannah College of Art and Design. At first, I was not sure about SOTA since it was still pretty 'new' back then. After my first year there, however, it really was the right place for me because of what I wanted to do career wise. SOTA was the one place that allowed me to pursue what I enjoyed so much. It gave that big push that I needed! No other high school gave me that! Gave me a chance to show what I was capable of!

Today, I'm a entrepreneur, owning and operating my own business for the past 6 years! I literally create cartoon character costumes full time! I never thought I would be a business owner like that ever, but that's what my path led me to and its been such an amazing journey! 

How did being downtown impact your education?
I gotta say, being downtown was a trip for me. It was scary! But, in all honesty, it was fantastic! It gave me the confidence I needed for college life. SOTA basically was college! I mean, I moved across the country to live and study art and that in itself was very nerve racking for me. But if it wasn't for SOTA and how that school was laid out, I don't think I could have done that! 

All of the classes at SOTA are integrated in terms of grade and ability level. What was your experience with this kind of integration? Did you find it helpful? In what ways?
I actually thought that was very smart! I've had art classes before that I felt I was way too skilled to be in. Like it was a waste of time because I knew everything the teacher was teaching, you know? So having classes that were my grade and ability level were perfect for me! I was with people in the same level as I was and could just focus on the teachings not having to worry about being the "best" or "worst" in class. It was less stressful too in a way where you didn't have to worry about being at a higher level then others around you. We were all there to learn and improve in our skills! I hope SOTA continues with that!

What advice do you have for current students?
The advice I can give to current students, is that to give SOTA a chance. It is different from other schools, but a 'good' different. If you plan to pursue in the arts after high school, then stick with this school. You'll have a greater chance to do so with the help of very skilled teachers! They know what they're talking about!