School's beloved orchestra survives closing, but future budget cuts loom

January 2, 2014

WBEZ/Becky Vevea
Music teacher Artus Weible prepares orchestra students for a performance at their holiday concert at Chopin Elementary.

It was a year of change for the Chicago Public Schools—nearly 50 schools shut their doors over the summer, leaving behind books, desks, and even, an orange pick-up truck.

But what happened to the less tangible things inside the closing schools? WBEZ’s Becky Vevea visited a school that managed to save a popular program from a nearby closed school.

The orchestra at Lafayette Elementary grabbed headlines last spring when the Chicago Board of Education was deciding what schools to shutter.

Just four days before the Board voted to shutter Lafayette and 49 other schools, Artus Weible, the music teacher at Lafayette, directed his string ensemble on the sidewalk along Augusta Boulevard in Humboldt Park.

It was a Saturday in May and Weible still had no idea what would happen to the program after the closings.

But just before the holiday break, Weible stood on the stage in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Chopin Elementary auditorium.

“This is one of our favorites we brought over from Lafayette, here to Chopin, and we’ve had a great time putting it together for you,” Weible said.

At the school’s holiday concert, about 25 students lined up shoulder-to-shoulder across the front of the stage clutching their violins. Another 40 students—the older and more experienced group—sat in a semi-circle behind the beginners. Across the back of each black music stand is the word “Lafayette” scrawled in white paint.

Chopin was the official “welcoming school” for students at Lafayette. A WBEZ analysis earlier this year found that Lafayette students enrolled at 26 different schools across CPS, but the bulk of them—more than 200 children—landed at Chopin.

“There was so much uncertainty and people going through the halls and classrooms before we got the news even that we were closing, they were inventorying all the supplies. It was pretty traumatic,” said Beth Bistrow. Bistrow is with the Merit School of Music and helped Weible start the string orchestra at Lafayette 13 years ago.

“When we found out the news. What was it the end of July or something? I was, I was totally flabbergasted. I got a call and said we’re having the program. And I was so happy to get here. I thought, maybe, I’d never see these kids again.”

One of those kids was seventh grader Anayse Soto.

“When I found out that Merit was going to be here, I begged my mom to sign me in here just for the program,” Soto said.

But there are still big challenges.

For one, merging two school cultures hasn’t been easy. There are still hallway spats and one third grader tells me the “other kids” swear too much.

Then, there’s the issue of space. Chopin elementary now has an enrollment of nearly 600 students, up from about 250 last year. The Chopin building is meant to hold 720 students, according to CPS’s space utilization guidelines.

Bistrow said that’s way less than Lafayette, which has a capacity of 1,320 students. (Next year, Chicago High School for the Arts, a contract school with about 600 students, will move into the Lafayette building.)

“We don’t have any classrooms and we don’t have any storage space, which is true of everyone in the school,” Bistro said. “We’re just jammed in.”

“We use every classroom,” said Fredrick Williams, the new principal at Chopin. He came from Near North Elementary—a special education school that was also shut down last year. “We use every space. We use what used to be storage space for some of our office space.”

Williams said he used Chopin’s special welcoming school funds to pay for the orchestra program.

“Once I had an opportunity to talk about this transition and think about pieces that we could keep for sure, Merit was always something that was going to be there from day one,” Williams said.

But next year’s budget is a different story.

We used a lot of one-time-only funds to make this year happen,” Weible, the music teacher, said. “Those funds will not be available next year.”

And that’s an issue for schools in every corner of Chicago, not just Chopin.

“How many worthy programs are out there and some will not get the funding they deserve?” Weible said. “I can only say this: The arts are not a luxury.”

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.