Charter school backed by Chicago hip-hop artist Common gets second chance

An arts charter school backed by Chicago hip-hop artist Common will get a second chance to launch, the latest chapter in a lengthy saga that raised bitter opposition from neighborhood groups.

The Art in Motion Charter School won an update to its five-year charter from the city’s Board of Education last week.

The school was originally going to open this fall, intending to share the campus of Hirsch Metropolitan High School in Greater Grand Crossing. Now it hopes to open in fall 2019, contingent on finding a suitable location by Jan. 1 within the neighborhood.

The delayed opening shows the difficulty that even well-connected charters—Common’s mother, Mahalia Hines, sits on the Chicago Board of Education—encounter when trying to find suitable buildings.

In addition to pledges from Common, the AIM charter will also receive funding from New Life Covenant Southeast Church in Greater Grand Crossing. Charter schools are independently run but publicly financed, although many of them also raise private funds.

In its application, AIM stated that it plans to spend just under $3.6 million in its first year of operation; $25,000 would come from private fundraising. An AIM representative said the fundraising goal might be raised in later years.

Distinctive Schools, a Chicago group that manages four other charter schools in the city, will manage the school, which has emphasized personalized learning, tailoring curriculum and teaching to individual students’ abilities and preferences. AIM plans to open with 200 students in seventh and eighth grades, then expand a grade level every year until it includes 12th grade and 1,200 students.

In its initial charter application, AIM had proposed another possible location: a 100,000-square-foot church and arts center that New Life Church is building. Scott Frauenheim, president of Distinctive Schools, said that AIM’s board is no longer considering the megachurch because it won’t be built in time and will not be large enough to house AIM’s growing student body.

“We are so excited to be in the final stages of securing our new home for AIM,” said Karen Ratliff, chair of the school’s board, in a statement after the school board’s decision.

The board had approved AIM’s charter application in December, despite opposition from community groups. The Chicago Teachers Union argued that Joseph Wise, co-founder of Distinctive Schools, had fiscal ties to SUPES Academy. The training organization for school administrators was involved in an illegal kickback scheme with former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. But a spokeswoman for Distinctive Schools has said since that Wise never had a financial relationship with SUPES. 

Hirsch parents have decried the lack of community input. In a public hearing in January, Maria Owens, a member of Hirsch’s Local School Council, said that AIM would divert critical funding that Hirsch would need to expand its programming, such as an ongoing collaboration with City Colleges to create a First Responders Academy.

She also said that AIM did not engage with the Greater Grand Crossing community when drafting its charter application.

“There was none, no collaboration whatsoever,” she said.

When applying for its charter last year, AIM cited surveys that showed “a strong need and desire for more access to the performing arts in the community.” But those surveys were given only to members of the New Life Church. Frauenheim said that after submitting the charter application last year, it passed out 300 to 400 more surveys to non-church members. The results of those surveys were not released; however, Frauenheim said that AIM has gathered signatures from 1,000 community residents in favor of the plan and support from dozens of community groups. 

Frauenheim said that in response to community requests for more arts programming, AIM will also offer after-school arts for nearby K-5 and Hirsch students.

It’s uncertain whether AIM will provide programs that are or could be offered by existing neighborhood schools.

AIM has stressed its personalized learning model as one of its prime features. Frauenheim said that unlike traditional personalized learning models, which rely on data to track students’ progress, AIM will take a “relationship-based” approach, meaning teachers will shape curriculum based on one-on-one interactions with students.

Frauenheim added that “the idea of bringing rigorous academic curriculum in addition to the arts is something that we’re priding ourselves on based on community input. The community is saying, ‘yes, arts are great, but we still want to be able to compete.’”

Among the other schools that Distinctive Schools manages, three are rated Level 1 and one is rated Level 2-plus. The district’s highest-rated schools are rated Level 1-plus.

While there are no arts-focused high schools in Greater Grand Crossing, Dyett High School for the Arts is located about 20 blocks north. Dyett is a Level 1 neighborhood public school, and will also begin a personalized learning curriculum next school year, said its principal, Beulah McLoyd.

She said that there is always a benefit to more arts programming.

“I’m looking at the data as it pertains to Dyett being a neighborhood high school, having 93 percent attendance, having 98 percent Freshman OnTrack rate” – referring to students on a course to graduate – “and what do I think the contributing factors are? Students having the ability to study the arts,” she said.

“I don’t know if that means we need to open up five or six more schools,” she added. “It could be you just expand arts programming within the schools that you already have.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Wise did not have financial ties to SUPES Academy and that Distinctive Schools gathered 1,000 signatures from community residents in favor of its plan.