Petition update

OTS update: A new interim leader, the latest on 909, some troubling news coverage, how you can help

Save Old Town School

Feb 26, 2019 — 

It’s now a little more than four months since the stunning announcement that the Old Town School planned to sell its Lincoln Park building, a decision that launched our petition (now over 15,000 signatures) and has now led to big change at the School.

Before we share the latest news, here’s the most important thing you can do for the School: help us get more people to sign up for classes in the second 2019 session, which starts March 4.  For Wiggleworms and adult group classes, there’s a $15 discount if you register using promo code FOLKYFRIENDS19.

Here are the latest updates.

A new interim leader

Jim Newcomb, who had been serving as a member of the board of directors, has been appointed as the School’s chief executive officer through June 2020. In a press release, the School said Newcomb “will focus on providing overall leadership and coordination with critical stakeholders of the School while the search process is conducted for the permanent executive leadership.”  The search to replace executive director Bau Graves, who retired at the end of 2018, will begin next January and be completed by June 2020, the School said.

Rashida Phillips, who had been serving as interim executive director, is taking on a new position as senior director, community ventures -- in which she will oversee the School’s community programs, including Music Moves, Guitars for Growth and Chicago Public School programs.

Save Old Town School representatives have met and interacted with Newcomb quite a bit over the past few months.  We congratulated him and expressed our belief that he “cares deeply about the school” and has “demonstrated a genuine interest in students and our teachers.”  

We hope he will build support among the School’s stakeholders and prioritize open communication.  You can read our complete statement here.

Alternatives to selling 909 W. Armitage

The School’s working group focused on 909 W. Armitage reports that it is considering a wide variety of alternatives to selling the building.  The working group -- made up of board representatives, staff, teachers and community members -- will update the board at its meeting on March 9.  

Rob Ospalik, an OTS board member who is co-chair of the working group with fellow director Jamie Rachlin, tells us, “We have a great group assembled, with some really good and talented community members, board members, a member of the SOTS team, OTS staff and teachers – lots of people who care a lot about the school and our community presence in Lincoln Park.”

Ospalik said he expects the group will present more than one option to the board.  He said he doesn’t expect a final decision to be made at the March 9 board meeting, but that the group is “optimistic that we will have a couple of really interesting options that result in the very best possible outcome for the School community.”

We’re increasingly optimistic that the Board will ultimately decide to keep 909 and continue school operations there.  But turning around the School’s seven-year decline in enrollment will be critical. In a meeting last week, Jim Newcomb told us that all scenarios for continuing operations at 909 W. Armitage rely on an enrollment turnaround. That’s why we’re urging everyone who cares about the School to do what they can to boost class registrations for the next session starting March 4.

Other working groups

Two other working groups are also exploring critical issues.  

The enrollment working group is co-chaired by Newcomb and board member Christine Donovan.  In an email to staff and teachers, Newcomb said the group has “focused its efforts on how best to improve the enrollment situation for our two largest programs: Wiggleworms and Adult Group Guitar classes. So far, we have focused primarily on some of the big factors that affect enrollment. Some small changes are already in the works, but the big items will be utterly dependent on whether or not we can focus the whole community—staff, teachers, students, community members and board—on pulling in the same direction.”

The communications working group, Newcomb said, “has been assessing the school’s communications with internal constituents.They are looking both at what has worked and what might work in the future. They have been focused on big-picture needs and will provide clear recommendations that will help us ensure everyone is speaking a common language, is well-informed and that there are more effective feedback loops in place.”  He said the group will also study how to create and structure a student advisory board, something we think is essential to ensuring that students have a voice at OTS.

A look at the School’s recent history

Last week, published a lengthy and troubling article exploring the School’s recent history.  It focuses on Bau Graves, executive director from 2007 until his retirement last month.

The article, written by longtime Chicago journalist Mark Guarino, is based on interviews with “more than two dozen people intimately involved in the school since Graves was hired in 2007. They include both current and former administrators and teachers. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity, either because they weren’t authorized to speak to reporters or because they fear retaliation.”

The article quotes Graves as telling a Michigan group that he was “embarrassed” that the Old Town School was “pretty much made up of white folks” and that the “organization is part of that systemic racism.”  

The article describes the financial challenges that resulted from the School’s decision to build a second Lincoln Square building in 2012.  It also investigates Graves’ prior experience running smaller nonprofit groups and how he was chosen as executive director:

“Graves had never shown tangible success growing an arts organization the size and scope of Old Town, had never run a school, had never managed a staff of more than a few people, had no experience overseeing a faculty in the hundreds and a student body in the thousands, had never overseen a budget of more than $2 million. How did he get into the running for the job when clearly there are arts management professionals, in Chicago and beyond, who had longer résumés showing more positive results, or who have at least had experience that corresponds to the dynamics of running a community-based school?”

We can’t vouch for everything in the article, but much of it is consistent with what we’ve heard from teachers and former staff members since the announced sale of 909.  It also raises important questions that are certainly relevant to the selection process for a new executive director. We recommend you read it for yourself.

One last reminder

If you love the School, register for a class in the session starting March 4 -- or persuade a friend to do so.  You’ve taken classes yourself - or know someone who has - so you know how the Old Town School changes lives.  Helping boost enrollment is the best thing we can do to help the School. To register, call 773-728-6000 or visit -- you can get $15 off adult or Wiggleworms classes with discount code FOLKYFRIENDS19.

We’ll continue to post updates here periodically -- but if you want to be sure to keep up with the latest news, we recommend you do one or more of the following:

Thank you again for your support.

Keep fighting for people power!

Politicians and rich CEOs shouldn't make all the decisions. Today we ask you to help keep free and independent. Our job as a public benefit company is to help petitions like this one fight back and get heard. If everyone who saw this chipped in monthly we'd secure's future today. Help us hold the powerful to account. Can you spare a minute to become a member today?

I'll power Change with $5 monthlyPayment method


Please enter a comment.

We were unable to post your comment. Please try again.