Is SOTA ‘that place’ for grade 9?
Josh Nicholson dreams of a high school career that honors his talent as a singer, the application he brings to his studies, his independence and his worth as a person. The eighth-grade student at Stewart Middle School was thrilled when school officials announced that Tacoma School of the Arts (SOTA) would be adding a ninth grade, bringing it into conformity with all the district’s four-year high schools.
When word went out, Josh and 270 other eighth-graders submitted application portfolios for admission into the new class.
Now the Tacoma School Board is walking back on Superintendent Art Jarvis’ administrative decision to expand the grades at the school while keeping student body numbers steady at 500.
Opened in 2001 in an assortment of downtown spaces around the University of Washington Tacoma, SOTA was a daring venture, a school that would attract art-minded students to study at the core of an open campus surrounded by museums, businesses and theaters.
Last year, with 500 students and a record of high test scores, SOTA’s administrators said it was time to make the school whole, to bring in ninth-graders who would spend their high school career in one school, instead of transferring in for their sophomore year. Jarvis approved the plan, provided the number of students would remain at 500.
“Given that the enrollment wouldn’t change, the superintendent expected there wouldn’t be any budget impact, so he could go ahead and make the decision,” said district spokesman Dan Voelpel.
The word was already out when school board members objected.
They had not cleared the plan. They feared adding a class would mean adding students, and costs that would sap resources for other high schools. They wanted more information on diversity and achievement. They questioned whether the open campus was safe enough for ninth-graders.
Thursday evening, SOTA staff, Tacoma Police Sector One Commander Lt. Rob Jepson and some 75 students and parents came to the board meeting to address those concerns.
SOTA principal Jonathan Ketler said the school aims to add the ninth grade while keeping enrollment close to 500. Because the students must apply to the school, the district can control enrollment numbers.
He said the school has built a new outreach program for middle schools to broaden its racial and economic diversity, which is lower than Tacoma’s traditional high schools.
In standardized tests, SOTA students perform above the state and district averages in reading, writing, math and science, and its low-income students are narrowing the achievement gap. In science, 59 percent, compared to 29 percent of district and 31.3 percent of state low-income students, met the standards.
Ketler said the school will have daily freshman biology classes next year, replacing a schedule in which the classes meet every other day. That, he said, should raise science scores for all. SOTA, he noted, has the second-highest science score average in the district, behind SAMI, the Science and Math Institute, a similar high school at Point Defiance.
As for safety, he said, no student has been harmed, or harmed someone, in the school’s history.
Sending a child to an open downtown campus is a leap of trust, Jepson told the parents, and the school and the city have earned it.
“The One Sector is the safest sector in the city,” he said. “We don’t really have assaults down there.”
He ticked down the security assets around SOTA when classes are in session: United States marshals at the federal building, business association security officers on foot and on bikes, UWT and museum security, transit drivers and police constantly circulating the area on LINK light rail, Sector One police officers, including community liaison officers.
On top of that, he said, the school teaches good security measures, and the students follow them.
“It is just a safe area,” Jepson said. “I drive it all the time in an unmarked car. The kids set a good example.”
That they do, said the students at the meeting.
“As a student body, we all help each other,” said ASB president Nick Vargish.
It’s a school tradition to look out for new students, teach them how to get around, make them feel welcome, the young people said. And they learn quickly.
They step up to the responsibility, student after student said.
There is one drawback, they told the board: It is hard to go to one high school for freshman year, then transfer to SOTA the next.
“Uprooting myself from one school was easily one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made,” said Aaron Leach.
They want four years to make the most of their talents, viewpoints and academics at SOTA.
But it was Josh Nicholson who brought the audience to its feet with applause.
“In middle school, I was teased and rejected for how I look and what I was interested in,” he told the board members.
“I elected to go to a school like SOTA because I feel that there I will be accepted by others because they share the same interests as me. I like the idea that SOTA is a school where you can express yourself and how you feel openly. When I go to high school, I want the way that others look at me to change from what it was like in middle school. I feel that SOTA is that place. I know I will be welcome there.
“In addition, I put a lot of thought and effort into my application and tried to keep my grades up so that I would be accepted in ninth grade instead of having to wait a whole year.”
Josh is earning seven As and one B at Stewart.
Board members will decide at their March 8 meeting whether to add a ninth grade at SOTA.
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677