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Controversial Charter School Backed By Common Wins CPS Recommendation

Musician and actor Common and his mother Dr. Mahalia Hines visit the Renaissance School of the Arts as Ambassadors for AdoptAClassroom.org and Burlington Stores on Thursday, July 20, 2017, in New York.

Sarah Karp

A controversial performance arts charter school backed by rapper Common won a recommendation by Chicago Public Schools officials Thursday to open in a building alongside one of the city’s most severely under-enrolled high schools.

Common’s mother, Mahalia Hines, sits on the Chicago Board of Education.  

CPS officials also recommended closing ACE Tech, a small trade-focused charter high school in the South Side’s Washington Park neighborhood. ACE Tech has struggled with performance for years.

Nobody from ACE Tech, which has 325 students, returned a call for comment. In a press release, CPS officials said the school has been on a watch list for two years because of weak performance and other quality options available for its students.  

The Chicago Board of Education will vote on these recommended changes on Wednesday. Hines does not intend to vote on the Common-backed school, Art in Motion Charter School.

Art in Motion would be the first new charter school approved by the board after taking a one year hiatus on opening more privately run, publicly funded schools in the city.

The approval of the new arts-focused school is raising questions about adding a school in a neighborhood where many schools have plenty of space and too few students. Within five years, the charter school hopes to educate 1,200 seventh through 12th grade students.

Already, all nearby high schools are severely underutilized and CPS is planning to build a new $85 million high school in Englewood about three miles away.

The proposal suggests the charter would be split between two locations: CPS’ Hirsch High School, which is severely under-enrolled, in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on the South Side and a new mega-church being built nearby. In order to co-locate with Hirsch, the charter school would need separate approval from the Board of Education at a later date. Arts in Motion intends to pay up to $900,000 in annual rent, according to the proposal documents.

That church, New Life Covenant, is the driving force behind the charter school. The church’s pastor, John Hannah, is an ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has appointed him to city boards. Emanuel has attended groundbreakings for some of Hannah’s church projects.

In a statement, Karen Ratliff, a spokeswoman for the proposed charter’s board, said they are excited to offer South Side students access to a high-quality performance arts high school. They note that the North Side has ChiArts, a contract school with a prominent board of directors.

“This proposed school has been years in the making, and it reflects our community's vision of what will best serve our neighborhood's youth,” she said in a statement.

The statement noted the charter proposal came out of a grassroots community-driven process.

But the proposal has come under fire from some Hirsch parents, community members, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Hirsch Local School Council president Maria Owens said the new charter school will mean the end of the neighborhood school because eventually Hirsch will be squeezed out. Though only 141 students are enrolled, she said Hirsch’s staff is trying to give those students a good education and cares deeply about them.

“Hirsch Metropolitan High School students are not throwaway children,” she said at a press conference this week. “Hirsch Metropolitan School is not a school of rejects. We have a vibrant student council, we have a vibrant student body. We have a staff that cares.”

Arts in Motion Charter School leaders said that Hirsch students could participate in art, sports, and other activities at the new school.

The Chicago Teachers Union has also raised questions about the education management organization that Arts in Motion’s board plans to hire to run the school. Distinctive Schools, a nonprofit organization, already runs four elementary schools in Chicago for the Chicago International Charter School network.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said Distinctive Schools is too deeply connected to other companies that contract with CPS. Companies and groups that provide multiple services for individual school districts invite corruption, he said.

“This is a corrupt, inside deal,” he charged. “This has to be stopped in the name of educational justice and democracy in our schools.”  

But Scott Frauenheim, president of Distinctive Schools, said he runs an independent organization. While Distinctive shares office space with other education companies and considers their staff colleagues, there is no connection, he said. His organization was chosen because of its unique learning approach in that includes make individualized learning plans for each student, Frauenheim said.

Arts in Motion would be Distinctive Schools first high school. Frauenheim said his team has researching successful models to get some idea of how to run the new charter.  

A second charter application is also before the board for Chicago Classical Academy in in the South Loop. But CPS officials recommended it be rejected.

Finally, CPS officials recommended that the board renew contracts for 19 Chicago charter schools. Most are for five-year terms, but a few earned longer or shorter terms: two are seven-year renewals and six are for three years or less.

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