Chicago Gets Its First Public High School for Performing Arts!!

5 07 2009

*As seen in Performink Online *

music_and_performing_artsBy Kerry Reid

Chicago, without question, is in the top echelon of American cities when it comes to the strength of the professional arts. But it’s also the last major city in the U.S. without a public high school dedicated to arts training. (The Chicago Academy for the Arts, which opened in 1981 at the intersection of Chicago and Milwaukee Avenues, is a private independent institution.)

I didn’t know The Chicago Academy for the Arts is private…

But that’s about to change. Beginning this September, when the Chicago High School for the Arts opens on the south side, CPS students with a commitment to both academics and professional arts training will have an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a new kind of school. Under the leadership of executive and artistic director Jose Ochoa, CHSA, or “ChiArts” as it is already known colloquially, will offer concentrations in music, theatre, dance, and visual arts, along with a full complement of accredited academic classwork. Initially the school will be housed in the Pershing West Middle School at 32nd St. and Calumet Avenue. The first year’s class will hold 150 students, admitted through an audition process, with another 150 added each year. (In other words, the first year that there will be four classes, freshmen to seniors, on board will be the 2012-13 school year.)

The impetus for the school, notes Ochoa, grew out of a working group under the umbrella of the Elizabeth Morse Charitable Trust, composed of representatives from 10 different music organizations in Chicago, including the Chicago Symphony, the Sherwood Conservatory, Merit School of Music, and the Lyric Opera. The organizations came together to discuss the lack of diversity in Chicago music ensembles.

Says Ochoa, “What they came up with is that there was a gap of music education [in the public schools]. They are not doing a great job of creating the next generation of Chicago artists. The working group then identified some of the civic leaders who could take [the group’s proposals] to the next step.”

The working group’s aim to open a public high school specifically geared toward professional arts education and training dovetailed nicely with the Chicago Public Schools’ “Renaissance 2010” program, an initiative dedicated to opening 100 new schools—charter and professional development schools in particular—by 2010.

“We are a contract, not a charter school,” explains Ochoa. “We have more autonomy than traditional CPS schools. We can have auditions, and our funding is different.”

The next step will be to create elementary schools that will prepare students for such a curriculum. It is well documented that children who learn music have an easier time grasping new ideas and retaining information as they grow older.

Ochoa, who comes to Chicago after serving as the superintendent of cultural arts for the Metro Parks and Recreation Department in Nashville, Tennessee, also has logged time as an arts teacher for at-risk students in Amarillo, Texas, and holds an undergraduate degree in music performance from the North Carolina School for the Arts and a master’s in interdisciplinary studies from West Texas A&M University. He identifies three key components to the ChiArts mission: college prep, so that students at ChiArts can compete academically when they apply to programs such as Yale School of Drama; pre-professional arts training, including work with local working artists; and, of course, diversity.

In that last area, ChiArts is off to a good start. Says Ochoa, “The Chicago public schools have over 410,000 students, and 90 percent of them are minorities,” whereas many private institutions tend to have much lower minority representation. The incoming class of 2013 at ChiArts breaks down, according to Ochoa, roughly as 33 percent African American, 28 percent Hispanic, 23 percent white, and the rest some combination of bi-racial, multiracial, Asian, and Native American. “Our students are also diverse socioeconomically and artistically,” says Ochoa. And the school will offer courses for English language learners (ELL).

One big advantage? It’s affordable. No one, especially Ochoa, denies that the Chicago Academy for the Arts has a great program. In fact, the school was named a “national school of distinction” by the Kennedy Center in 2006. But though Pamela Jordan, Head of School for the Chicago Academy, notes that 48 percent of the student body (and 75 percent of students of color) receive scholarships, the tuition runs about $17,000 a year—far out of reach for many families. And with only 160 students admitted per year, with, according to Jordan, 45 percent of them from outside Chicago proper, the Chicago Academy can’t possibly provide opportunities for all the inner-city students who are serious about arts training. Jordan, who was on the advisory committee for ChiArts, says, “There are so many ways of delivering this education. It’s not one size fits all.”

The Chicago High School for the Arts and Chicago Academy are similar in how the school day is structured. Both feature academic classwork in the morning, arts classes in the afternoon, and studio/rehearsal time after school. The school day at ChiArts will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Upon graduation, says Ochoa, students will have earned 44 credits, as opposed to the 28 credits most CPS students earn. All academic courses must be taught by fully accredited secondary education teachers, though the arts training that doesn’t count toward transcript credits can be provided by working artist/educators.

Right now, ChiArts also has about 60 partners in the professional arts community, ranging from behemoths like the Art Institute, Steppenwolf, and Goodman to the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center on the South Side. In addition to providing advice about curriculum, the partners help connect the school with potential students. Ochoa notes that over 600 students applied for the first class, which demonstrates the strong interest and need for the program. Down the road, the school also plans to use the partners to help craft internships and apprentice programs for seniors and graduates.

Jordan, who has been at the Chicago Academy for 18 years (seven in her current role), doesn’t see the two schools as competitive with one another in any way. In fact, she believes that the coursework at both institutions will prove to be a model for all kinds of schools down the road, not just those who are training future artists.

“I think that, more and more, educators as well as others look at arts education as a part of 21st century skills. Clearly, there is mounting research that supports this. Years ago, we couldn’t say that. Now there are the longitudinal studies about what this training leads to, whether or not the students remain in the arts.”

Ochoa agrees.

“We need ChiArts and the Chicago Academy to be three times as large. We also need Curie, and Kenwood Academy, and Lincoln Park High School. Woonsocket, Rhode Island, has had a public performing arts high school, but not Chicago.”

As for the old images of performing arts schools fostered by the movie and television show “Fame,” Ochoa laughs that “Our students will not be dancing on taxi cabs and cafeteria tables.” What they will be doing, he hopes, is gaining a first-class education and training in the arts that will help create more diversity and continuing experimentation in the city’s professional arts organizations. Says Ochoa, “It’s a very exciting time to be in Chicago with this project.”

For information on the Chicago High School for the Arts, visit For information on the Chicago Academy for the Arts, visit

My ideas are in orange. VB




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