17 years ago, a team of educators and community members decided to create a school based on the idea that we learn better in community. The school buildings would be located in downtown Tacoma, in the midst of arts and cultural resources, next door to businesses, and alongside a university campus. The students would be from all over Tacoma, and students of all ability and grade levels would be in the same classes.

The resulting school was the Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA). The story that follows is about the building of the SOTA Community that made the school possible. How the dedicated team of staff, students, and community partners came together to create something innovative. It was truly a community effort that required creativity, tenacity, vision, and hard work from everyone.

All of these efforts have blossomed into more than those initial teachers and students might have imagined. SOTA’s success enabled the team to open two more high schools, Science and Math Institute (SAMi) in 2009, and Industrial Design, Engineering and Art (iDEA) in 2016. All the schools continue to perform well on all the standard outcome measures, but more importantly, year after year we see students finding their passions, following their creativity, and discovering their natural curiosity and love of learning.

Thank you for all the ways that you’ve helped to build innovative education in Tacoma. All of this is only possible because of your support and enthusiasm.

Thank you,

Jon Ketler

Co-Director, SOTA, SAMi, and iDEA

In the year 2000, some teachers and community members lead by Jon Ketler came together to start an arts-focused high school in downtown Tacoma. Jon Ketler, a then ceramics teacher at Stadium High School, thought that Tacoma’s various art-focused museums and establishments held the potential to be great resources to high school students. After talking with others about this idea, a SOTA team was formed: Ralph Harrison, Doris Conrath, Robin Jaecklein, Teresa Crisler “TC” Waits, Paul Eliot, and husband and wife duo Steve and Sunny Cairns were eager to be the builders of something entirely new. They hoped to use the vast community arts and cultural resources in Tacoma to educate students.

Over the months, several individuals met with the team to discuss this idea and what it might mean for education. It was during the summer of 2000 that the big break came via phone call. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation called to request more information on the idea, and then offered the SOTA team the opportunity to speak face-to-face with the education department. Tom Vander Ark, Kyle Miller, and Kenneth Jones all conferenced with the SOTA team about what this school was meant to be, and so supported the idea that they granted $500,000 to the project. SOTA was one of the first five high schools in the nation to receive funding from the Gates Foundation.

Unlike its sister schools SAMi and iDEA, SOTA had no predecessors to help guide its path. Those eight teachers knew the work that it would take to bring students into an institution whose environment was so radically different from those of comprehensive high schools. Undaunted by the task before them, the developers made numerous flyers and evening phone calls to every single ninth grader in the Tacoma Public School District. Their months of work had paid off when in September of 2001, 150 sophomores were enrolled in the Tacoma School of the Arts. 

After all the hours spent planning between these eight teachers, the beginning of the school year had finally arrived, and it was time to see the fruits of their labors blossom. The team encountered an unexpected roadblock when, two weeks before classes were scheduled to start, they learned that they had no access to the building that they had leased. The incoming 150 students had no classroom! To combat their lack of space, the teachers took everyone to Camp Cispus for a three day retreat. The time spent and activities done together served to bond this first class before classes had even truly begun. The whole experience was such a success that it has become an annual tradition for all three Elements of Education partner schools to participate in an all school retreat at the end of August.

In that first year, SOTA took its Gritty City of Tacoma aesthetic to a whole new level. The school then owned only the downstairs of its current 1950 building on Pacific Ave. The downstairs at that time consisted of just two large, cold, long-abandoned rooms. It was this small and unconventional area that over one hundred people grew to call their second home. The dilapidated setting did little to deter this first class of students and teachers. Everyone worked together to clear away the thick coating of dust and piles of concrete debris, and to convert the old warehouse into a functional school building. Students would stay for hours after classes had ended to work on personal projects, or to help with setting up their new school. Staff members called upon their pupils to bring extra supplies from home. Donated or found shop lamps, tables and chairs, canvas sheets, and miles of extension cords and more furnished SOTA’s original 1950 location. The work was never easy, but all were proud of what they had built.

Only a few weeks of school had gone by when tragedy struck our nation. The events of September 11, 2001 have gone down as some of the most horrific in the USA's recent history. The impact was felt over 2,000 miles away in Tacoma, Washington. The SOTA staff and students responded with a community art project. They made plywood figures of people and paint them black to look like a chalkboard. The school wrote questions on and placed these figures around the University of Washington campus with bits of chalk to go with. A passerby would read the question (“What do you feel?” “How did this attack change u?”) and write their own response with the attached chalk. This was only the first of many projects that SOTA would put out for the community.

January of 2002 marked the first Miniterm ever at any Elements of Education Partner School. The entire school grouped together to put on a theater production called “The Frog Princess”. Subcategories of writers, directors, orchestral players and composers, set and costume designers and so forth combined their talents to present at the Rialto theater. Even with little time and resources, SOTA wowed a sold out audience. This engaging and wildly successful project is what strengthened the already persistent group. The SOTA Community now had a tight bond from shared experiences, and this is what kept them at SOTA until their graduation in 2004.

In May 2017, SOTA will say goodbye to its 14th graduation class. There are now three Elements of Education Partner Schools with the addition of SAMi in 2009 and iDEA in 2016. Next year the Partner Schools will serve 1,400 students around Tacoma. Through all the time passed and changes faced, six of the initial eight teachers still work at or with SOTA, SAMi, and iDEA. SOTA’s old motto of forever being “under construction” rings true to this day as all three institutions commit to building something better with each and every new school year. The dedication of the staff and students at SOTA forged a new path for all people who see community resources used to educate students, and who have a passion for education done differently.

Photos from the first few years at SOTA. Enjoy!


Want to read more? Check out previous newsletters!

March 2017 - SAMi's Story - How a Public Park became a Public School, SAMi Photos

February 2017 - The Next Move Internship Program, Thank you Spring 2017 Internship Hosts

January 2017 - Thinking, Creative Inspiration Miniterm, Interview with Chelsey Scheffe (SOTA Alum '08)

December 2016 - Balance, Interview with Mari Thiersch (SAMI Alum '13), Balance at SOTA by Olivia Sherry (SOTA '17)

November 2016 - Empathy, Interview with Mary Buchholtz (SOTA Parent '06, '09, '10, '13), The four pillars at SAMI by Sally Carmen (SAMI Parent '16)

October 2016 - Community, "How a Public Park Changed My Education" by Isobel Ladenburg (SAMI '17), "T-Shirts as Belonging" by Ella Banken (SOTA '17)

September 2016 - Retreat Reflections, Interview with Ty Acord (SOTA '09)

August 2016 - Visual Arts Program at SOTA, Interview with Erma Smith (SOTA '06)

July 2016 - Update on IDEA, Interview with Molly Hamilton (SOTA '06)