Why Common’s arts school is all wrong for Chicago

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Chicago rapper and actor Common (right) has pledged financial support for a government-funded, arts-focused charter school being proposed by members of a South Side megachurch. Mahalia Hines, who is his mother and the longest-serving current member of Chicago’s Board of Education, says she won’t vote on the proposal. | Getty Images

Not long ago, a colleague of mine and I printed off Common’s “The Corner” lyrics to help teach narrative voice to our freshmen students in Englewood.

Even more recently, my daughter sat wide-eyed in front of the TV as Common, Colbie Caillat and Elmo taught her to belly breathe her way through an angry phase via a Sesame Street song.


So when the media announced that Common would be helping to support the arts in the Chicago Public Schools, I was excited. But then I read about how he was choosing to support the arts.

In November, Common promised monetary support for a publicly-funded charter school that has a specific focus on the arts called Art in Motion (AIM). New Life Covenant Church on the South Side of Chicago proposed the charter school. AIM’s proposal status is pending, but the Board of Education will decide soon whether or not to open the school —and the board’s longest standing member is Mahalia Hines, Common’s mother.

There are two major conflicts of interest that make this school a sketchy idea. The first is that a religious institution will have its dollars and influence in a public school. The second is that another major funder of the school, Common, has familial ties to a sitting board member.

Though Hines has said she will not participate in the vote on whether to open the school, her influence as a member of the board — voter or non-voter — must be called into question.

To make this situation even more complex, the proposed placement for AIM is within Hirsch High School, a neighborhood public school serving only 138 students. This would make it a co-location, meaning two high schools would compete for students within the same walls.

The Chicago Teachers’ Union highlighted the problematic ethics of all this in a statement: “The Art In Motion Performing Arts Charter School proposal, we believe, is rife with conflicts of interest…and potentially serious ethics concerns related to principle parties involved in the privatization project.”

As a teacher and Chicago resident, it is clear to me that CPS does not need any more schools in Chicago, let alone a school with this many conflicts of interest. CPS enrollment has declined dramatically, nearly 57,000 in the past 15 years. We shouldn’t continue to oversaturate areas in our city with schools where there are enrollment declines; we should support the schools we already have.

We need ideas that can rebuild our communities ravaged by violence and poverty.

Although this new proposed school is a misguided idea, there are plenty of other ways to contribute to Chicago and CPS. Common should take notes from Chance the Rapper, who has decided to contribute millions of dollars to support the arts in several CPS schools and to become one of Chicago students’ and staff’s favorite advocates.

Common could even partner with Chance in his endeavor to build up the arts in all of our schools, not just one of them.

Beyond this, Chicago could use more community centers that promote nonviolence, and these could be arts-focused. We need low-cost places for students and families to go on weekends, and we need to provide safe spaces for kids, such as all those amazing children’s museums in the suburbs.

The spaces and buildings themselves already exist; Chicago has almost 50 closed school buildings sitting dormant in neighborhoods that need a space to house the hopes and dreams that once filled their classrooms.

Don’t get me wrong, this city needs all of the help it can get, and a superstar like Common has the potential to leave a major footprint on many blighted neighborhoods.

I just hope it doesn’t come in the form of a school CPS doesn’t need, a school created under a shroud of ethical conflicts, a school that, in the end, will have a limited reach even if it does eventually succeed.

Gina Caneva is a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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