All School Retreat: The first three days of school.

Every year at the end of August, each of the Elements of Education partner schools SOTA, SAMi and iDEA kick off the new semester with a three day all-school retreat. Black Lake Bible Camp has been a place of community and team-building for the schools for several years. The very grounds of Camp Black Lake are the perfect setting to promote togetherness and tranquility: All of the spaces are communal and open, with quick access to both lake and forest. The short time spent there is packed with an array of activities that involve every member of both student and staff alike. All-school events such as showcase and class breakouts accompany smaller group activities like mentor group meetings, team building exercises and peaceful in-cabin readings. Of course, amidst the continual action there is the need for some rest. Recreation time, though often spent unwinding and relaxing, is when many great relationships are created or further developed (especially for freshmen!). Those who go to Camp Black Lake leave with new connections, and new ideas of what their school means to them.

We interviewed four incoming SAMi juniors about their experiences at one of the school’s most popular traditions. They answered the following questions:

  1. How did you feel before going to the retreat?

  2. What experience was most meaningful during the retreat?

  3. How have you used your experiences to help others?

  4. What would you tell a freshman, or someone who was thinking of attending?

Here is what students who have experienced the All School Retreat have to say:

Kelsie N.

Kelsie N.

  1. Before going on the All School Retreat I am always very excited. I love to meet new mentor group members and see friends I haven’t talked to since the end of the school year. I don’t attend any other overnight camps, so I always look forward to the experience.
     
  2. Last year during a breakout session my mentor group was challenged with a simple rope tied between two trees. Only two rules: You can’t go under or around it. I was really nervous because I don’t like people picking me up and I can’t jump well, so I was really not looking forward to it. After a few of the athletic people hopped over it was my turn to get helped over. I was super nervous but I enlisted my trust in my peers and I made it over. I then helped put my other fellow mentor group members. It was really cool to know everyone trusted each other and we really bonded after that experience.
  3. After my experiences at the All School Retreat you really become better friends with everyone and it’s really amazing. I’ve used my experiences to bond over the school year and reminisce. We definitely had more trust during "Happies and Crappies", a time for sharing the good and the bad. It’s also kinda hard not to trust someone who has seen your bed head. All in all my experiences at the retreat has lead to powerful friendships, that may not have happened without it.

  4. I would tell them not to be afraid of making new friends, playing games, swimming, or even going on stage. Camp is about connections and if you don’t make those connections it’s going to be hard going into the school year knowing no one. Make the most out of camp because once it’s over you can’t go back.

Alison H.

Alison H.

  1. I usually feel very excited but also super anxious before camp. It’s a bunch of mixed emotions because I’m going to see all my friends and the teachers.
  2. … going to camp every year makes me realize how fast this whole high school thing goes by and how important and fun it actually all is. So I’d say probably the balance of business in the front and party in the back.
  3. I think I’ve used my experiences to help others by being more inclusive. I feel like I look out for people who are struggling or need help and do my best to help them adapt and feel comfortable with whatever they need.
  4. … SAMi is a great school… it’s very much self taught and like college life and if you’re not ready for that then you need to think through going. It’s also a great place to meet friends, even if you’re leaving all your old ones behind, you’ll find better ones and you’ll fit in, so if your friends are altering your decision, forget it.

Elena S.

Elena S.

  1. I feel excited and overwhelmed. I signed myself up for a lot this year and I want to prove myself to others that I can handle it.
  2. In previous retreats the most meaningful experience I’ve had is yelling from the audience at showcases and really feeling the community.

  3. This year I’m leading an activity in my mentor group that was really meaningful to me. We share what pilar we are going to focus on and why and then talk about what they mean to us and then share what we think the worst and best things that can happen this year are. It sounds more intimidating than it is.

  4. I would tell them, “Don’t be afraid to jump in. It’s easier to sit back and let fear envelop you, but the best moments are when you don’t think about the fear or skepticism and just be 100% yourself.

Stella D.

  1. Before the retreat I was super nervous. I thought I wouldn’t know anyone there and that I was going to have a hard time making friends at school. Going into freshman year puts a lot of pressure on you because of all the changes you’re making.
  2. The most meaningful experience during camp for me is probably meeting our mentor group, because while you don’t know almost 500 kids you’ve got a group of about 20 that are familiar around the camp and are all really excited for you as a freshman. Everybody in my mentor group was extremely [accepting] and helpful, which caused me to act this way with our incoming freshies.

  3. Again, camp helps you become more comfortable with everybody you’ll be in school with, and because of this, the students who are exceptionally shy, are encouraged to join the SAMi community and become open to the experience. Being at SAMi made me a more outgoing person helping me to be more caring for other students and help them through the transition into high school.

  4. One thing I would tell freshmen coming into SAMi is to be open to new experiences. Sticking with the two or three people you know shelters you from meeting really great people!

iDEA: Celebrating our First Year

iDEA: Celebrating our First Year

In 2015, a group of developers from Tacoma’s Public School of the Arts and the Science and Math Institute came together with a common goal: To create a brand new innovative school to give students the specialized education that they deserve. iDEA, or the school of Industrial Design Engineering and Art, is the youngest of three Elements of Education partner schools in Tacoma. Its older siblings SOTA and SAMi have both been met with much success over the years, totaling in with over 1,000 incoming students between the two. It is from these projects that a board of experienced developers drew the inspiration to make an entirely new school concentrated on combining the focuses of its predecessors, while still keeping those pillars of Thinking, Empathy, Community and Balance close to heart.

This team consisted of Jon Ketler, Kristin Tinder, Jaleesa Trapp, Melissa Moffett, Zach Varnell and Doris Conrath. These individuals all knew each other quite well after years of brainstorming and project planning together for the Elements of Education partner schools. Even though each and every member had a full tool belt of knowledge and experience, making this third school into a reality, they knew, would still be a massive undertaking. There were spaces to lease, community partners to find, teachers to hire, and students to recruit. The group of six, through diligence and tireless work, made this all happen before iDEA opened its doors in August of 2016. The 125 current freshmen and 17 faculty members have set up shop in Tacoma’s repurposed Park Avenue Elementary School building. Even in its first year, iDEA is off to a great start with the community and its curriculum.

Whereas SOTA caters to the Kahlo's and Spielberg’s, and SAMi to the Isaac Newton’s, iDEA is home to the da Vinci’s of our city. Each Elements of Education partner school has a set of majors or “pathways” (e.g. natural sciences, theater, songwriting and recording, etc.) that a student takes classes in before selecting a single major in their junior year. iDEA has four pathways: Computer science, engineering, visual design, and video production and animation. Students have Math, Science, and Humanities classes along with various electives on their eight period schedule. These elective courses such as woodworking and computer science are the Industrial and Engineering part of iDEA, while graphic design and video production are the Design and Art. Staff and teachers have worked to create this school and its course material, which are both ever-developing entities. Of course, they are not alone in their efforts.

What makes iDEA so different from other high schools, including its siblings, is the involvement of community organizations with its classes and students. SOTA and SAMI both have sprawling campuses situated respectively across downtown Tacoma and in Point Defiance Park. iDEA’s grounds do not cover the same amount of acreage as its predecessors, and therefore does not offer the same access to neighboring businesses. What is the fix? The school’s community resources are instead built into it instead of around it. Companies like Second Cycle, a non-profit bicycle store and program, have created shops inside of iDEA’s building, while organizations such as the LeMay Car Museum are partnered with the school to teach classes and design curricula. To have involvement from older professionals in a student’s prospective line of work in an invaluable educational asset. It is with these community partners that the first freshman class of iDEA have made and will continue to make history.

There is a general sense of pride that iDEA students feel about their school. The class has come so far in developing culture where one had not existed only nine months ago, and is preparing to welcome in the graduating class of 2021 into the environment they have built from scratch. These young adults are all fueled by a passion to create something new, both in the sense of wood, metal, and applied sciences, and in the sense of their school setting. The legacy that these students and the staff, teachers, and community partners that support has already done its part to take up several pages in the annals of our city’s history. These are, after all, the same people who may just go on to write the code and design the foundation of our future.

Thanks to all of our partners who have been instrumental in making iDEA a huge success in its first year:

We’d love to give a shout out to all of the organizations who have been so instrumental in making iDEA a success in its first year:

  • Ansys, Inc. (a physics-based test modeling software company)

  • PB&A Designs  (an industrial design company that focuses on high-end furniture)

  • Echo People Designs (an industrial design company that builds bicycle frames and primarily works with metal)

  • VFE Custom (a guitar pedal electronics company)

  • Bootstrapper Studios (a mobile live-streaming broadcast company)

  • Second Cycle (a non-profit community bicycle shop)

  • Alchemy Skateboarding (a non-profit that teaches youth advocacy and community engagement through skateboarding)

BRIDGE

BRIDGE

Elements of Education Partner Schools stand on four pillars: Community, Balance, Thinking, and Empathy. Community and Empathy are exhibited daily at SAMi and SOTA through an elective course called BRIDGE. BRIDGE is a semester long class where Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors take on a role comparable to that of a teacher’s assistant. They take part in a class to do what their name suggests: Serve to bridge the gap between student and teacher. Heather Olmstead and Stacee Flynn currently teach the class, although BRIDGE has been offered at SAMi since its first year, when freshmen comprised the entire school. The success of this program warrants its amount of participants and longevity.

SOTAbots Robotics Team

SOTAbots Robotics Team

It is no easy task to turn your aspirations into reality. SOTAbots team 2557’s incessant devotion to engineering and club management has made them successful in this pursuit of their goals. The combined group of students from SOTA, SAMi, and iDEA defines dedication and self-sufficiency through the robots they build from scratch, and the mark that they make on the Tacoma community.

In 2007, robotics teacher Ken Luthy of SOTA started the club with about 10-15 students. Now, the numbers of members who meet in SOTA’s downtown Tacoma 1950 building have risen to about fifty, with every individual using their skill sets to best suit the company. Most arrive as freshmen or sophomores and leave only once they have graduated. Sara Siemens-Luthy (SAMi Outdoor Ed teacher and Luthy’s wife) has also joined the team as a coach. I was unable to speak with either coach, but several team members, and mentor Dafydd Rhys-Jones (known also as Bishop), were very willing to tell me about the goings-on in the club. 

Adventures & Applications (A&A)

Adventures & Applications (A&A)

Fridays at Sami, Sota and Idea are host to two one-of-a-kind classes: Mentor group, and Adventures and Applications. A&A works to broaden the individual student’s perspective by offering a deeper look into a topic of their choice. 

After lunch ends at 1:20, we make our ways to our chosen A&A classes where we will stay until school lets out at 3:20. (However, seniors , juniors in their second semester, have Junior/Senior Breakouts in place of an A&A.) While it is much like mini and microterm, this Friday-only class takes place almost exclusively at the student’s home school. Popular SAMi A&A’s include Makerspace, creative shop class lead by Johnny Devine, Superbridges, a mentorship program for high school students to get to know elementary school students, and any one of the political science or psychology courses taught by Matthew Sherls. A number of other classes are one shots with students who fit into a certain niche in mind. These include topics such as video game design, mathematical art, and exploration of the outdoors. Even if none of the descriptions on the course catalogue appeal to a student, there is always the chance to expand your horizons.

Miniterm at SOTA, SAMI, and IDEA

Miniterm at SOTA, SAMI, and IDEA

After the craziness of December finals, January at SAMi, SOTA, and now iDEA comes with a complete change of course for students and staff alike: Miniterm. This month-long extensive course takes place at any of the three Elements of Education campuses. Comparable to the week-long “Microterm” at the end of the school year in June, Miniterm offers both a break from the usual, and extensive concentration on a unique subject of the student’s choosing.

Traditionally, science-focused courses took place at SAMi, while art-focused courses took at SOTA. Now we have iDEA thrown into the mix. This new school serves to fill the gaps that its successor schools’ facilities could not. Its workshops provide an alternate location to the SOTABots team and several other shop-oriented classes. iDEA teachers have also teamed up with teachers from their sister schools to combine their expertise into a single course. (E.g. The Sports Science of Lacrosse and Golf, The LEGO Miniterm, and Who is Telling Your Story? among others.)

Outdoor Education

Outdoor Education

One of the most unique classes I’ve taken at SAMi so far was Outdoor Education. Every Tuesday and Thursday of the fall semester my freshman year, I hiked the trails of Point Defiance Park with 20 other students, led by teacher Maria Jost. This course is one that only SAMi has to offer. It provided me, and many others who have taken it, with an enhanced respect for our park and its flora.

The Importance of Mentor Groups

The Importance of Mentor Groups

I first met my mentor group (Carol Brouillette’s “Brouilletians”) at camp of my freshman year. All of the older students intimidated me at first. While almost none of us are very big in size, every one of the upperclassmen I saw looked so much more mature, in one way or another, than the students I’d met in middle school. Some were loud, some were quiet, some seemed gentle and others abrasive. They all formed a cast of characters of a type I’d never seen before. By the end of those three days of camp, however, I felt included. I did not share the same memories and experiences as the upperclassmen did, but I began to connect with them. In my cabin were the two other freshman girls in my group plus a sophomore girl, and I got to know them more by talking with them during cabin readings and before bed. I left for home still feeling anxious about the upcoming year. However, I left feeling just a bit less alone.