Chicago Academy for the Arts receives ‘transformative’ gift from famous alum

Songwriter Justin Tranter is donating $500,000 to the school to support scholarship programs for students in need.

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Justin Tranter, songwriter for the Paramount+ television series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.”

Justin Tranter, songwriter for the Paramount+ television series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.”

AP

For Justin Tranter, the Chicago Academy for the Arts is more than the place where they learned the skills that helped make them one of the most successful songwriters of the past decade.

It’s also the place, Tranter says, that saved their life.

In 10 years, Tranter has gone from earning a salary just under the poverty line to a hugely successful career in the entertainment business, so much so that Tranter is donating $500,000 to their alma mater to support tuition and scholarships for students in need, it was announced Friday evening.

“It’s transformative,” said the academy’s Head of School Jason Patera of the gift from Tranter, who also sits on the school’s board of trustees.

“As an independent school, a lot of people think it’s full of rich kids, but that’s not the case at all,” Patera said. “Our students come from all over, from all kinds of backgrounds, and we award a staggering amount of tuition assistance every year.”

The private school at 1010 W. Chicago Ave. provides general academics as well as specialized arts training for 120 students in grades 9 through 12, more than half who need financial assistance to afford the school’s base tuition of $33,175 a year, Patera said.

Tranter, a 1998 graduate of the school, said that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, it was especially important to enable the school to keep operating without worry that many of its students couldn’t afford the tuition. Tranter, who grew up in Lake Zurich, said the school not only taught them the skills that would enable them to work with some of the biggest stars in music — among them Gwen Stefani, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Cardi B and Imagine Dragons — but also kept them safe and free from the bullying they faced during one semester at a previous high school, where the bullying “got very physical.”

After that, Tranter’s parents allowed them to audition to attend the Chicago Academy for the Arts where they were accepted, protected and nurtured, Tranter said.

“I was able to go to this beautiful, diverse environment where teachers were openly queer, and students were transitioning, and there was a lot more racial diversity,” Tranter said. “It’s a safe place from bullying, but also art makes you a better person.”

After graduating from Chicago Academy for the Arts, Tranter ended up in New York City and became a singer/songwriter for the band Semi Precious Weapons.

“We got very successful in New York right away and got multiple record deals but got dropped from all of them because no one could figure out how to make what was happening in New York happen everywhere else,” Tranter said.

But Tranter said the last album Semi Precious Weapons worked on was produced by Markham native and Grammy Award-winning record producer Tricky Stewart, and that experience led Tranter to their ultimate passion — writing songs for others.

Stewart “had a couple songs I had written for the band and said, ‘This feels a little too pop for the band — do you mind if I play it for Rihanna?’ ” Tranter said. “And I said yes.”

Tranter’s first bonafide hit came in 2014, with a co-songwriting credit on Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries.” Tranter’s writing/co-writing credits also boast Bieber’s “Sorry,” Stefani’s third solo studio album, “This Is What the Truth Feels Like,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” Halsey’s “Bad at Love,” and “Thru Your Phone” for Cardi B.

Tranter’s support for the Chicago high school runs deep, including previously funding the “Justin Tranter Recording Studio” and the school’s recording arts program as well as founding the school’s annual AIDS benefit. Tranter, who lives in Los Angeles, also has taught songwriting workshops at the school and remains heavily engaged with the students.

Their most recent gig is executive music producer and songwriter for the “Grease” prequel series “Rise of the Pink Ladies,” which debuts April 6 on Paramount+ and for which Tranter wrote 30 songs.

“Going to this school, learning so much about musical theater but finding my passion for songwriting — and now I get to apply my songwriting skills to create the largest original musical TV series in history,” Tranter said. “It’s a full-circle moment for me.”

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