Common, South Side megachurch backing plans for a new charter school
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Chicago rapper Common has pledged financial support for a government-funded, arts-focused charter school being proposed by members of a South Side megachurch.
In an unusually close relationship between a church and a public school, the proposed Art in Motion Charter School would open next fall, perhaps initially in a new, $26 million facility being built for New Life Covenant Southeast church, which is led by Pastor John F. Hannah, an ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The school aims to serve as many as 1,200 students in grades 7-12. It initially was going to be called New Life, after Hannah’s church in Greater Grand Crossing, a South Side neighborhood supporters call a “high school desert.” They have tried twice before to get CPS’ permission for a school, touting strong ties to the church, which is pledging to donate startup money to open the school.
“We’re opening a charter school for the performing arts and we need your help in selecting its official name,” the church posted on Facebook.
Hannah is president of the not-for-profit organization that would hold the charter if the Chicago Board of Education approves it when the proposal comes before it in December. Hannah has been an appointee to several city commissions under Emanuel, as well as the Chicago Public Schools’ 2012 school-closing commission.
Organizers say church leaders instrumental in designing the school won’t be involved running it. Illinois law bars churches from operating tax-funded schools.
“It’s not rare for charter schools to be heavily supported by a particular community organization,” CPS spokesman Michael Passman said. “As long as the school itself is public, nonsectarian and nonreligious… it is eligible to be a charter school.”
Day-to-day oversight of the arts-heavy “personalized learning” curriculum would likely be managed by Distinctive Schools, a charter-management organization that runs four other charter schools in Chicago.
The church has pledged to help cover startup costs for the first three years, according to Scott Frauenheim, Distinctive Schools’ president. How much hasn’t been finalized, according to Karen Ratliff, a member of the proposed school’s board who is senior executive director of the church.
If the Board of Ed. approves the school proposal next month, the board for the new school would include one church member — Ratliff.
If the school isn’t able, as hoped, to share a building at 7740 S Ingleside that’s now occupied by about 135 Hirsch High School students — with what CPS says is space for about 1,080 — its backup plan calls for moving in to the church’s new “temple” at 7600 S. Greenwood that the mayor helped break ground on.
That space, if needed temporarily, would be provided free, church administrators have told CPS. According to the organizers, the church would benefit by having quality high school option in a neighborhood that needs one.
“The Grand Crossing community is overdue for transformative change,” said John Hill, one of many church members who testified at a CPS hearing Monday.
The partnership was first struck with the rapper-turned-actor’s Common Ground Foundation, led by Mahalia Hines, who is his mother and a former CPS principal as well as the longest-serving current member of Chicago’s Board of Education.
It’s unclear why that was changed to The Lynn Group LLC, an investment firm started by the rapper, whose given name is Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.
“Rashid made a decision to support AIM through the Lynn Group to provide wraparound services for the school,” wrote Ratliff, a member of the proposed school’s board who is a senior executive director of the church. “The Lynn Group will be able to share more about their organization and their interest in this project. However, we are very grateful for their commitment and support.”
Hannah and Lynn Group partner Tamara Brown didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Brown wrote a letter confirming the support of the Grammy-, Oscar- and Emmy-award winning rapper and actor: “We are investing to create a creative, college, career and community movement through Art in Motion Charter School that extends the reach and increases the life and opportunities for students in the city of Chicago,” she wrote on Oct. 5. “We have been working with key partners to identify partnerships and resources” that would provide startup funding, performing arts programming and facility updates.
Common’s support would benefit the entire neighborhood, with the building “available year round, before, during and after school and on weekends,” wrote Brown, who heads the foundation where Hines is president.
Hines would say only, “I have nothing to do with the school.” Still, she said she won’t vote on the plan because her son is involved.