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August 31, 2006
In many Washington communities, a third of students who start high school do not finish. School districts are searching for ways to provide meaningful and engaging experiences for young people in order to improve retention and raise the level of performance in student learning.
Teachers’ roles are changing from their traditional position as the primary source of information. Students now rely on teachers to learn how to inquire and discover through project-oriented activities. Educators are looking for ways to put learning activities in a greater context for students.
While test scores have shown signs of improvement in recent years, they are only one measure and still demonstrate there is a long way to go.
In planning schools, we often discuss characteristics of intended learning environments with terms such as community use, project-based learning or collaborative learning settings. These concepts that guide school design are more powerful when considered in the context of the communities that students move into as they matriculate from formal education.
And while they are in school, community partnerships can lead to new and engaging experiences for students and teachers. Schools are shaped by their communities, and strong partnerships afford the opportunity for schools to return the favor. Here is one example.
Shaping the school
Photo courtesy of McGranahan Architects
Tacoma School of the Arts’ performing arts center is located in a former downtown music store. The remodeled building houses classrooms, an orchestra room, recording and dance studios, and a cabaret and 105-seat theater for public performances.
The Tacoma School of the Arts (TSOTA), a 5-year-old school within Tacoma Public Schools, has outperformed most others in the state while galvanizing a community outside of the school.
The school was formed in a highly entrepreneurial fashion, with a nontraditional approach to the learning environment. Serving students in the 10th to 12th grades, the school is limited to less than 400 students in order to foster closer connections between teachers and students.
The school is located in nine different buildings in downtown Tacoma, all within a one-mile radius. In the formation of the new high school, Tacoma Public Schools demonstrated vision and resourcefulness by arranging for the use of underutilized historic buildings downtown. The school also uses nearby facilities at the University of Washington-Tacoma, Tacoma Art Museum, Washington State History Museum, the Museum of Glass and the theaters of the Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.
Within the renovated historic buildings, all of the studios, classrooms and labs are designed to support creative endeavors and inquisitive activities.
Spaces are designed to support a high level of accomplishment and real-world professionalism. Students demonstrate their learning through performances and displays that are often for public audiences.
The school includes a 105-seat theater; a recording studio where students have produced music; a cabaret club where choirs learn by day and jazz ensembles entertain the public by night; and painting, drawing and photography studios that are open to community use through the university and Tacoma Metro Parks.
There are relatively few classrooms compared with other schools. TSOTA delivers a full high school curriculum with core academic subjects integrated with creative learning experiences.
Many of the settings were created out of the distinct qualities of the existing buildings, which created some nontraditional adjacencies.
Large roll-up doors separate a science lab and a drawing studio. The film studio is located adjacent to a classroom primarily used for foreign language instruction. Administrative and teacher support spaces are intermingled with the learning settings, so personal interaction with students is frequent.
Shaping the community
TSOTA’s extensive partnerships, built around education with other local institutions, has led to the formation of the Tacoma Education Consortium, a collective of 30 arts and education institutions whose mission is to know, understand and share resources for educational programming, reduce duplication of services, expand offerings to the public and raise community awareness of available programs.
Another nonprofit support group, TSOTA Partners, solicits funding for artists to teach in the school, augmenting the talent of the core teachers and providing another outlet for the area’s professional artists.
Metro Parks provides staff located in the school that coordinate community arts classes and write grants to support the collaborative programs TSOTA makes possible. Many of the instructors in the summer art workshops are accomplished TSOTA students.
Facility utilization includes evening sculpture classes by UW Tacoma instructors for university students, which are also attended by some TSOTA students. Tacoma Youth Symphony holds practices and performances in the TSOTA Performing Arts Center Theater. Metro Parks offers painting, drawing and ceramics classes in the school’s studios.
Locating the school in formerly empty buildings has added life to the city streets as students move between classes on sidewalks or the light-rail line, and eat lunch in local restaurants and sub shops. The windows along the street are filled with student artwork. TSOTA students extend their learning through a two-week internship with local businesses and organizations.
TSOTA was a major contributor to the production of a recent three-day arts festival in downtown Tacoma with a sculpture gallery in the new public plaza, chalk artists enlivening the sidewalk, and performing artists in a variety of open venues.
At its inception, TSOTA was shaped by the partnerships and settings available in the community to provide unique and enriching experiences for students. Extending the educational experience to community amenities like the university, museums and theaters, blurs the line that distinguishes what the school setting is.
Students act as respectful citizens to retain the special opportunities they are given as they move around downtown. And they do make the most of those opportunities with their creativity and intellect.
Now the tables are turned and the school is shaping the community as it broadens its focus on providing meaningful experiences for students. The arts are more invigorated in Tacoma, and our community has more ways to connect with education.
Michael McGavock is a principal with McGranahan Architects specializing in the planning and design of educational facilities. McGovock is a past president of TSOTA Partners.