Kehrein Center for the Arts Groundbreaking Ceremony at Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School

A West Side auditorium built in 1956 is undergoing major renovations to become Chicago’s only sizeable performing arts center of its kind between the Loop and O’Hare. On Thursday morning, April 19, Chicago’s Austin neighborhood’s leaders, youth, parents, friends, arts advocates, and community members joined together to begin the revitalization of a new Center for the Arts – a 1,000-seat auditorium with an expansive proscenium, main floor, mezzanine, and balcony located inside Catalyst Circle Rock Charter School.

Kicking off the groundbreaking ceremony, Gordon Hannon, CEO of Catalyst Schools shared, “This day is over three decades in the making. We are going to break ground on a dream that has been in so many minds for so many years.” Circle Urban Ministries and Rock of Our Salvation Church, as well as Ravinia Festival have partnered with Catalyst to bring the performing arts center to life.

Andy Code, another partner of the project, revealed the Center’s new name, The Kehrein Center for the Arts, in honor of Dr. Glen and Lonni Kehrein, who have lived in the Austin neighborhood since the 1970s and dedicated their lives to the community. “We moved here because we wanted to be part of what was happening in the Austin community, we selected it specifically because we had a heart for racial reconciliation,” remembered Lonni Kehrein, Co-Founder of Circle Urban Ministries, as she spoke at the podium on the new stage.

The school has taken on more than one form, starting as Circle Rock Preparatory School, founded by the Kehreins, with only one Kindergarten class of nineteen children. Later, the Catalyst Schools non-profit network of public charter schools was founded in 2006, at the invitation from Chicago Public Schools, and partnered with Ravinia Festival. Today, nearly 1,600 scholars attend Catalyst schools in Chicago, and each of the 126 students who graduated in 2017 were accepted to college – collectively receiving over $15.3 million in scholarship offers.

Christine Taylor, director of Reach, Teach, Play Education Programs at Ravinia Festival said, “This is the only place we could have started this program. This is the only place this social-action partnership could have started. We couldn’t be more thrilled these children finally get the opportunity to have the concert hall and the performance space they deserve.”

After watching the talented students of the Sistema Ravinia Orchestra, the largest African-American elementary school orchestra in the nation, perform on the unfinished, yet grand stage, Representative Danny Davis took to the podium. “As I saw these young people playing Mozart, I thought about the hundreds of young people who wouldn’t have the slightest idea of who Mozart was,” he said. “Education is the key.” Which is a value the Catalyst public charter schools take very seriously: Circle Rock alumni graduate from college at a rate six times greater than their peers in the Austin neighborhood.

For the fittingly dramatic closing portion of the ceremony, community leaders and educators of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood adorned hardhats and took sledgehammers to The Kehrein Center’s stage. This display kicked off the final phase of fundraising for the $4 million project. An additional $1.8 million is still necessary to complete the work.

Upon completion later this year, The Kehrein Center for the Arts will serve as the home of Catalyst’s Sistema Ravinia Orchestra. The Center will also satisfy the need for a gathering place for the entire Austin community, a venue for other schools and non-profit organizations, artists, and performers. It is exactly these facilities Chicago’s public charter schools invest in and cultivate that contribute so much value and opportunity not only to the students who attend these schools, but to the surrounding community.

Saudia Davis, a film producer, and founder of another Catalyst partner, Smarty Pants are Leaders, sees tremendous value in the renovation, “I know the power of what a stage can do. It can absolutely transform youth and allow adults to see the youth within themselves.”