Community High School (CHS) is an alternative public high school serving grades 9-12 located at 401 North Division Street in Ann Arbor's historic Kerrytown District. It was one of the first magnet schools to arise from a nation-wide wave of experimental schools that drew on the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and was specifically influenced by social and political activism in Ann Arbor at the time.
CHS opened in September 1972 in the former Jones Elementary School building which had closed in 1965 as part of the Ann Arbor Public School’s re-districting efforts to combat racial segregation.
During this period, Ann Arbor was home to several liberal and radical groups, including the Human Rights Party (HRP), which held three seats on city council, and Youth Liberation of Ann Arbor, a teen group affiliated with the burgeoning youth movement. One of its members was 15-year-old Tappan Junior High student, Sonia Yaco.
When Yaco decided in early 1972 to run for city council as an HRP candidate, her highly public campaign, in which she demanded a student voice in school governance and garnered 1,300 write-in votes, indirectly influenced the formation of CHS later that same year.
By March, the Board of Education had authorized the creation of a planning committee for Community High to be headed by a core group of five teachers who would later work at the school. Its foundational platform is based on the “school without walls” model of Chicago High School for Metropolitan Studies and Washington D.C.’s School Without Walls, drawing on community members and resources to design its curricula.
In 1973, CHS drew national attention by initiating workshops and teaching seminars to address perceived institutional sexism in both its curriculum and hiring practices. Outcomes from these sessions were used to model changes in the AAPS school system the following year. In 1975, CHS became the first alternative school in Michigan to receive accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.
In addition to CHS, Earthworks High School (originally called Pioneer II and located in the former Fritz Elementary School building at 995 N. Maple Rd), a more experiential alternative high school, had opened the previous fall. It would eventually merge with Community High School in 1977 and continue as a multidisciplinary educational track at CHS with an emphasis on community activism.
During the 1980s, CHS held a lower profile in the community and was viewed by critics as harboring misfits, slackers, and drug users. It was during this period that the school acquired its nickname "Commie High.”
Despite this reputation, CHS was still drawing steady interest from students and parents disenchanted with the traditional high school climate, and in 1989 the number of applications to the school finally exceeded the number of available slots and the school saw its first-ever waitlist.
By 1990, CHS had emerged from its status as an eccentric and obscure alternative school to become a high-profile educational option in the district.
Throughout the 1990s, CHS tried various methods to accommodate its expanding waitlist. Following a short-lived lottery in 1992, the school instituted a first-come/first-served enrollment method that led to a round-the-clock line-up on the school’s lawn. By 1995, the line formed several days ahead, and in 1996 the line-up outside the school district’s administration building began two weeks ahead. The situation garnered enough negative attention at local and regional levels that a lottery was finally brought back in 1997.
Attendance at CHS is currently based on a double-blind random lottery selection held each year, though students attending one of the other area high schools may dual-enroll as a part-time CHS student.
In 1991, the Ann Arbor School Board had also agreed that black students on the waitlist would receive priority to help offset a less diverse student body. Despite these and subsequent enrollment changes, CHS continues to be one of the least ethnically diverse schools in the Ann Arbor system.
Also during the 1991–92 academic year, CHS’ building was renovated and expanded, requiring a temporary move to alternate facilities at Ann Arbor’s Stone School.
School Board Election of 1994
Perhaps the most significant threat to CHS’ status and mandate, and to the viability of alternative education in the Ann Arbor Public School District writ large, came in the form of a “back-to-basics” challenge during the 1994 School Board election. The campaign was led by the conservative Citizens for Better Education (CBE), a group that had held a majority on the school board since 1991. In response to a tightening of school funding that followed the 1993 passage of Michigan’s state referendum capping local property taxes and mounting challenges to overcrowding at the city’s other traditional high schools, CBE proposed increasing the student size at CHS by 100-200 students and aligning its per-pupil spending with the city’s larger schools.
Proponents of CHS believed such a move would effectively end CHS as an alternative program and mounted a counter-challenge in the form of two progressive groups. The first was the formation of a liberal slate of Board candidates known as New Challenge, composed of current or recent CHS parents; the second, in the spirit of the school’s history, saw the formation of a student-driven political action committee, Ann Arbor Students for Political Action (AASPA). The AASPA began as a CHS class activity but eventually included 150 high school students from all three local high schools to become the first teen PAC in Michigan to influence a local race. After a bitterly fought race, the New Challenge defeated all three CBE incumbents and Community High School was able to continue as it was.
By 2000, overcrowding had become a problem in Ann Arbor high schools. Proposals to address the issue included increasing enrollment at CHS or moving it to one of the larger district high schools as a magnet program - suggestions that would recur throughout the 2000s even after the opening of a third large high school, Skyline High School, in 2008.
Despite the district’s mounting budgetary concerns and persistent grumbling over the per-pupil costs of maintaining an alternative school, by the 2010s CHS was a strong draw for families moving to the area, thus assuring its viability through an extended period.
In 2017, CHS theater teacher Quinn Strassel won the first-ever Teacher of the Year Award given to a Washtenaw County teacher by the Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce. And in 2019 CHS was among 362 schools awarded the National Global Blue Ribbon Award for overall academic achievement or closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.
In 2020, local filmmaker Donald Harrison released the documentary Welcome to Commie High and partnered with Ann Arbor District Library to produce the Music at Community High School archive.
Format & Features
CHS offers a smaller campus environment (approximately 450 students) than Ann Arbor's three comprehensive high schools, with college preparatory as an academic focus. It is further distinguished from similar alternative and magnet school programs by not restricting enrollment to a specific group, such as underprivileged or "gifted" students.
CHS encourages student-designed curricula and community-based education. Its influential Community Resources program flourished during CHS's formative years, with students developing 569 Community Resource courses in the local area during the fall of 1974 alone. In 2007, Ann Arbor’s Google office approached CHS to offer a class built around their AdWords advertising tool and in partnership with local non-profits.
Additional features unique to CHS are its student-centered Forum, which brings together students across all grades; a nationally-recognized, award-winning jazz music program; and an award-winning student-led newspaper, The Communicator. In contrast to the traditional high school experience, CHS foregoes sports programs, valedictorians, dress codes, hall passes, bells, and detention. It supports a fairly loose attendance and open campus policy, more akin to a college environment, and its informal mascot, the Rainbow Zebra, symbolizes individuality.
Marci Tuzinsky (current)
R. Wiley Brownlee