Sota's grads set the bar high

Arts school proving its worth with its students' strong academic results and artistic development

The school (above) in Dhoby Ghaut now has an enrolment of 1,092. -- ST FILE PHOTO
The school (above) in Dhoby Ghaut now has an enrolment of 1,092. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Sota principal Lim Geok Cheng with dance students (from left) Elaine Ng, Jill Goh, Natasha Boon, Esen Thang and Anabel Ng. -- ST FILE PHOTO

Singapore's only pre-tertiary arts school has been proving its worth.

The first two cohorts of the School of the Arts (Sota) - with the latest graduating last year - both surpassed the national average in the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma examinations.

Out of its 80 pioneering students, 54 are studying in local and overseas universities - with most pursuing general degrees. The rest, including 19 boys, are on national service or taking a gap year.

But the school's success, said Sota principal Lim Geok Cheng, goes beyond academics. From the first batch who graduated in 2012, 13 have moved on to prestigious arts schools such as Berklee College of Music and The Juilliard School in America.

At least 12 from the latest batch of 110, who received their IB results last month, have received offers from top arts institutions such as The Hartt School in the United States and the Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts. This shows that teaching the arts alongside academic subjects works, said Ms Lim.

With its good performance, she hopes interest in the school will continue to grow. Around 800 to 1,000 primary-school-leaving pupils already vie for Sota's 200 places each year. The school, which opened in 2008, now has an enrolment of 1,092 at its $145 million Dhoby Ghaut campus. Girls outnumber boys three to one.

Now Ms Lim, who took over as head of the school from founding principal Rebecca Chew at the end of 2012, wants to take Sota to the next level.

She wants to strengthen the use of art forms such as drama and music in the way mainstream subjects like maths and languages are taught. "If you are involved in movement or drama, you will remember your concepts, have a deeper understanding."

To do this, some of its teachers - Sota has 163 full-time and 51 adjunct teachers - will be sent to the Kennedy Centre in Washington in June for training. The performing arts centre is known for its efforts in integrating the arts into education.

Sota is also including more creativity in its curriculum to enhance students' learning in music composition and dance choreography. For those aspiring to be full-time artists, the school is starting a new initiative this year to prepare them for life in conservatories - schools devoted to the arts.

"If you really want to be an artist, you need to spend quite a great deal of time developing your skills," said Ms Lim, adding that more details would be out in May.

Sota already keeps its students busy. Over its six-year programme, students have to balance a "rigorous diet" of the arts and academics.

In the last two years, they have taken six subjects from mathematics to the humanities, including an art of their choice. The visual arts, which include painting and photography, are the most popular choice, with 39 per cent of the school's current Year 5 students studying them. Theatre is second with 20 per cent, and then dance with 16. Music and film attracted 12 and 6 per cent respectively.

There are no co-curricular activities because the time is spent on their art. Before major performances or exhibitions, students also get a period of "protected time" during which they have no tests and long assignments.

"That young people are prepared to dedicate so many hours to the arts... they deserve our support," said Ms Lim.

But the hard work is worth it, she added. The discipline they learn does not just rub off on their academic pursuits, but "after six years, they will come out ready to put in hard work, ready to be focused on what they want to achieve in life".

And graduates will have plenty of options to choose from. They can apply to a university to earn a general or arts-related degree or work towards becoming a professional artist.

Year 5 Sota student Elaine Ng hopes to get into a dance school overseas and major in ballet and contemporary dance.

The 17-year-old, whose parents manage a contractor company together, said the discipline she learnt through juggling schoolwork, rehearsals and performances will help her. "I think having an arts education would better prepare me for the diverse world of dance."

Nominated MP and actress Janice Koh lauded Sota as being a game-changer in producing future generations of artists and arts-literate professionals.

"It's dangerous to sideline Sota as a purely arts school, to think it will produce just artists," said Ms Koh.

"But it's about exposing young people to a multidisciplinary arts education, so that they can think like artists in other professions, with creativity and imagination."

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