Community is one of our core pillars. The initial idea for SOTA was to create greater student access to the museums in downtown Tacoma through increased partnership. As the school got started and we pioneered a new way to do education, it became obvious that the only way to make the schools sustainable was to foster a close community experience so we could support each other. These founding experiences stay with us today. Our partnerships have created access for students to Businesses for NextMove Internships, Museums, Universities, Theaters, Zoo, City, Forest, Waterfront and much more. And students entering SOTA, SAMi, and IDEA immediately experience the power of community as they interact with one another in Mentor Group and classes.

There is a lot that we could say about community, but the importance is the impact on our students, so this month, we’ll hear from two students about their experiences with community and partnerships. SAMI student Isobel Ladenburg shares how the partnership with Metro Parks Tacoma and the use of Point Defiance changed her education. SOTA student Ella Banken explores the idea of belonging to community through the lens of her camp t-shirts. These are just two voices of the 1,226 students we are serving in the 2016-17 school year.

Thank you for your support for Elements of Education and our partner schools. Through your enthusiasm, volunteer time, and monetary donations, we can continue to develop partnerships, form community, and provide greater access to students. 

Jon Ketler

It was a Tuesday in September, my last period of the day, and there was an opossum sitting in my classroom. After leaning in to get a better view, I looked down to my sketchbook, making sure to get the contour lines just right before I began shading. Charcoal rubbed against my fingers, coating them in a layer of black dust. Students around me laughed and made remarks about their sketches.

“My drawing looks a lot more like a large rat than an opossum,” commented the kid to my left. I leaned back and grinned, admiring his work.

“Still better than mine, which looks like a dinosaur” said a voice from the other end of the room. He turned his drawing outwards, displaying it to the class.

As I relate these stories of daily classroom activities to my friends from other schools, I receive incredulous looks, which I’ve grown accustomed to seeing as I talk about my school. What was I to expect? I’ve decided to ditch the traditional schooling system for an innovative, peculiar, and somewhat chaotic approach to education, the Science and Math Institute, or SAMI, located in Tacoma, Washington. When I inform people that my campus isn’t a school building and that it’s actually of a cluster of portable “buildings” inside a 702 acre public park, I get a lot of questions. Where’s your lunchroom? We don’t have one. What about lockers? Nope. Hallways? Yeah, we’re missing those too. What some might not realize is everything that my high school does have. We’re located inside Point Defiance Park, the second largest public park in the entire nation. Point Defiance contains a zoo and aquarium located within its borders, along with miles of vast old-growth forest, a system of interlocking trails to hike, a history museum, and a picturesque beach. These features make for a pretty unique high school campus.

We do things differently at SAMI. My days at school are spent looking through goggles and microscopes, loupes and camera lenses. Calculus class is located inside an aquarium, and Spanish, in the Rose Garden. And occasionally, I end up with an opossum in my Animal Life Drawing class (thankfully, it takes place at the zoo). I speak in units and measurements, in the Latin names of binomial nomenclature, and the Greek letters of Physics and Calculus. My hands carry calipers and inclinometers, along with GPS units and pH tests. Classes take place throughout the harsh wind and rainfall, I wear beat-up hiking boots, and a little-less than rainproof jacket, while writing in smeared, blotchy letters, on an also “less-than-rainproof” paper. I come home from school soaking wet, covered in mud, and endlessly happy.

Falling in love with SAMI was instant and effortless. After only the first few days of school, I was already convinced: if there was a “right way” to do education, this was it. School is captivating, challenging, and fascinating, all the things that education should be, but too often isn’t. With ample resources, I am allowed to learn recklessly, making mistakes as I progress. Asking questions as often as another person might breathe, I am vividly engrossed in what I am taught, and I soak up information like a sponge.

Despite all of the important lessons that my classes have taught me, the most important lessons that I’ve learned at SAMI are the unintended ones. When I began SAMI, I entered with the idea that school was necessary. Education was a singular step in my lifelong journey, something that I simply had to get through before I could continue on. My experiences have taught me that education is much more. Education is no longer a box that I can check off my list, it has become a consistent aspect of my life, something I’ll never be able to finish. Education is everywhere, in forest clearings, and sandy beaches. And sometimes, education is an opossum in your art class.

Every year during our school camp retreat, each student receives a t-shirt designed by Elements of Education. I didn’t sign up for it, I never paid for it, and I really had no idea that it would be a small detail of my school that I would grow to love and anticipate each year. I even remember posting this on Facebook over the summer: “The number one question on my mind as I enter senior year: what will my fourth and final SOTA camp shirt look like?” I meant this to be a funny post, but it turned into a sentimental discussion and a friendly debate between my friends and peers. We recalled the various designs that we received over the years and argued over our favorites. The t-shirts are often ill fitting and not the most fashionable style, but it's the design thoughtfully printed on the front that we love. Every design is printed only once, so every year I’ve gotten one I felt like I was building my collection of limited edition memorabilia. Now that I’m in my fourth year at SOTA, I love looking back at the shirt I got my freshman year. It was a simple design; a black t-shirt with a single bold E on the front. When I first recieved it I had no idea what the significance of the E was, and I was confused as to why I was receiving a shirt that didn’t even have my school’s name on it. Frankly, I thought it was a little weird. But now I love that shirt. It’s covered in paint stains and stretched out, but it has so many memories attached to it. I wore it almost every day in the Modern Dance class I took sophomore year, I wore it to our Day of Caring, and I even took it to China with me in 2014. Needless to say, it’s been through a lot.

Even though that shirt is grubby and old now, I have never had a thought about getting rid of it. It’s a tangible thing that I have in common with my classmates and a tie to my school. Now that I am a senior, only 137 of my classmates and I have that specific shirt we got our freshman year. Proof that we’ve been at this school for three - going on four - years, and we are proud of it!

Even though we do sell school gear, somehow I don’t think those sweatshirts or lanyards could ever match the love we have for these t-shirts. What other school would give out a school shirt with a design that I could only describe as a brain bursting with knowledge and creativity, which is the one we received this year. The quirkiness of that act and picture, really sums up SOTA for me. I love going to a school where we learn outside of the box and are encouraged to create every single day. And because of these one a kind shirts, if I see someone walking down the street and I notice they are wearing a trademark Elements of Education shirt, I have an instant connection with that person, without ever saying a word to them. Not only am I relating to another person because they own the same piece of material that I do, but I am also empathizing with them. Here is another person who opted to go to an alternative high school because they wanted to pursue their passion.

Even though our schools aren’t particularly conventional, we have as much school spirit as any normal high school. Sure, we don’t have football games or pep assemblies, but the foundation of support and community that our students have for one another shines through in every choir performance, dance, and art gallery that showcases our passions and celebrates our hard work. Granted this isn’t traditional dress-up-in-school-colors-and-cheer-on-the-basketball-team school pride, but it's our way of being proud of this establishment. As I’m writing this, my not-so-little brother is attending an information session for SOTA, where he hopes to attend next year, and I feel like cheering! I remember doing exactly the same thing in eighth grade, and I remember the rising excitement I felt as I learned more about the school. Even though I’ll be away from home next year and I won’t be able to keep an eye on my brother, I know that he will find himself at SOTA and he will grow as an artist and a person. Honestly, I am ecstatic for him, and I eagerly await the day when he will receive his letter in the mail.

As the schools are expanding and accepting more and more new students, I have noticed a significant increase in the number of t-shirts that I have seen in the community. It’s like an alternative high school epidemic, but a good one. When I move away from home to go to college next year I’m going to have to strategically pack only things that I really need. Even though I really won’t need to bring my old SOTA tshirts, it will be hard to leave them behind. But we’ll see… I’ll probably end up bringing one along just so I can always have a piece of my one-of-a-kind, incredible high school experience with me, and be reminded of the lifelong connections and memories I made there.