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Charter School Backed By Rap Artist Common Finds A Home In Chicago

The performing arts school has courted controversy because a church proposed it and it originally wanted to co-locate with another school.

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Common talks with media after performing at St. Sabina Church on Chicago's South Side in 2016. A performing arts school backed by Common is set to open this fall.

Common talks with media after performing at St. Sabina Church on Chicago’s South Side in 2016. A performing arts school backed by Common is set to open this fall.

AP Photo/Teresa Crawford

A Chicago charter school supported by rap artist Common and run by a South Side church headed by a powerful black pastor is set to open in the fall.

A.I.M. or Arts In Motion Charter School was approved last year but didn’t open after dropping plans to open in an existing public school. It now intends to open at 7401 S. East End Ave., a building in South Shore that previously housed a charter elementary school.

The school district is holding a hearing from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the CPS Loop Office, 42 W. Madison St. to consider the performing arts school. The charter is also seeking city zoning board approval on April 19.

If approved, the charter school will serve seventh and eighth graders this fall, but eventually will go through 12th grade and could serve as many as 1,200 students.

A.I.M. officials did not respond to phone calls but released a statement saying they were excited about the new location.

The school is controversial for a number of reasons: Pastor John Hannah’s New Life Covenant Church proposed the school — which was originally called New Life Charter School — and several of its potential board members attend his church. Hannah is seen as politically connected to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In addition, Common’s mother Mahalia Hines, sits on the Chicago Board of Education. She abstained from voting on the charter school last year.

Finally, A.I.M. originally was slated to share a building with Hirsch High School, a severely under-enrolled high school in Greater Grand Crossing. Hirsch parents and students, worried they would be pushed out by the new school, protested the charter school.

Nevertheless, the Board of Education approved the move into Hirsch. But later, A.I.M. leaders decided against Hirsch and asked the board for an extra year to open.

The new location is about one and a half miles from Hirsch in South Shore. It is in the attendance boundary of Chicago Vocational High School.

Maria Owens, who serves on the Hirsch School Local School Council, says she still opposes A.I.M. even though it won’t be inside Hirsch. She says she doesn’t understand why the people behind A.I.M don’t just partner with her neighborhood school rather than start a whole new school.

“It would have been awesome if they would have taken those same resources and said, ‘How can we use what we have to make it great?’ Rather than to dilute it and spread it across the same geographic area,” she said.

Another point of contention is the proposal to have A.I.M. be operated by Distinctive Schools, an educational management organization. Those organizations, which hire teachers and oversee curriculum, have come under fire recently for adding an often-costly layer of bureaucracy. There is a bill in the Illinois General Assembly to prohibit these companies.

Distinctive Schools already runs four charter schools in Chicago. It was criticized by the Chicago Teachers Union for its ties to SUPES Academy, the company involved in the bribery scheme that landed former Chicago Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in prison.

Distinctive Schools was founded by Joseph Wise, who also founded Atlantic Research Partners.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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