An award-winning program that transforms students through arts and community
Studying at the School of the Arts (SOTA) requires full immersion in downtown Tacoma. At any moment students dance at the Performing Arts Center, debate social justice at the Old Post Office building or draw scientific diagrams at the University of Washington Tacoma campus.
SOTA purposefully integrates into the community, spreading classrooms across three urban buildings. The innovative school offers a focus on the arts and an opportunity for students to recognize their connection to each other and the community.
“SOTA is all about community,” Co-Director Paul Kelly said. “Connecting within our school community is extremely important. Our students are also part of the downtown community and interact with local businesses in many ways, including through internships.”
Since opening in 1998, SOTA consistently produces graduates who finish high school on time and with high achievement. Most pursue advanced degrees, in the arts or other fields.
Discovering life goals
The songwriting classroom space at SOTA exudes a coffeehouse vibe. Music posters dot the walls. Students sit in armchairs listening to classmates perform original compositions.
Sophomore Ryan McLean leans into the piano as he plays and sings three of his songs. Ryan left a private school to enroll here after learning as a middle school student about SOTA’s songwriting and audio-recording programs. He earned selection through the school’s application and lottery system.
With four instruments under his belt, songwriting felt like a natural next step. But audio-recording offered an incredible new discovery: a love of physics. He plans to study physics and business in college and pursue music as a side passion.
“SOTA helps me grow in understanding how I can pursue a full-time job and music,” Ryan said. “The most rewarding thing is what I get back from the community – the support from friends and teachers and the fact that everyone’s available for me to come and ask questions.”
SOTA staff intend for students to make discoveries just like Ryan’s. Many go on to successfully pursue art full-time, while others use their exposure to the creative arts to add value to their career paths.
“We want to teach our students to be creative thinkers and problem solvers,” SOTA Co-Director Jon Ketler said.
Choosing a ‘major’
SOTA students follow a performing or visual arts pathway. Within those “majors” they drill deeper to pick a specialization like dance, photography, painting or audio-recording. The pathway allows students to gain depth in a single topic, although art classes outside the major are encouraged.
SOTA students study more than art. Like every high school student in Tacoma, they meet graduation requirements in math, science and the humanities. SOTA’s block schedule (extended class periods) allows students to take core academic classes and arts-focused courses. Students also can enroll in advanced science classes at SOTA’s sister school, the Science and Math Institute (SAMI).
Community and opportunity
SOTA provided recent graduate Ian Wheelock community and opportunity. Ian battled through a broken arm to complete his senior project of drawing every senior. He taught himself to illustrate with his opposite hand while his arm healed.
“I thought I would never finish, but I drew two or three with my left hand. Now I can draw with both hands, and I know all my classmates really well.”
Ian arrived at SOTA with a lifelong love of illustration, but he discovered another passion for songwriting. He offers freshmen advice he gathered: “Have a focus when you come, but choose other things you’re interested in and try those classes. Don’t be afraid to break out into stuff you don’t know about. This is the place to explore it.”