Lafayette Elementary string orchestra tunes up despite uncertain future

May 17, 2013

Rebecca LaFlure

(WBEZ/Bill Healy)
A cello player with the Lafayette Elementary School string orchestra joins others from the ensemble to play for a crowd on the first day of marches against school closing. The school is on the closings list.

It’s obvious when you walk through Lafayette Elementary that music is a big part of the school. Every weekday afternoon, students toting violins, violas and cellos shuffle down the third floor of the building. The halls are lined with murals of musical instruments and quotes like, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” A crowded rehearsal room fills with children prepping their instruments for orchestra practice.

But students will not return to the rehearsal room this fall if Chicago Public School officials decide to shut down the school. CPS has proposed closing 54 schools in an effort to consolidate resources in the financially stricken district. The Chicago Board of Education is expected to make the final decisions Wednesday.

The Chicago Teachers Union plans to start a three-day march protesting the closings. It will kick off at Lafayette and feature the school’s string orchestra. Students, parents and teachers say they hope to shine a light on a program that’s had a positive impact on the school, where 94 percent of students come from low-income families.

CPS said there are discussions about moving the program to the school where Lafayette students will be sent, but no details have been finalized.

“I believe this program does something that cannot be duplicated, that cannot be easily replaced,” Arturs Weible, Lafayette music teacher and orchestra director, says. “It has to be continued.”

Weible started the orchestra program at Lafayette 13 years ago in partnership with Beth Bistro of the Merit School of Music, a Chicago nonprofit that supports music programs for students in at-risk communities.  Bistro and Weible still direct the orchestra today.

Prior to Merit coming along, Weible said Lafayette’s music program was in scraps and tatters. He recalls scrounging garage sales to find any sort of instruments. So when his principal asked if he’d be interested in the partnership, he thought, “Uh, yeah! It’s a dream job kind of situation.”

Weible said the orchestra has grown to be the largest elementary string orchestra in CPS. Students, grades third through eighth, meet after school to play cello, violin, viola and double bass. They’ve played at the Chicago Children’s Museum, the state capitol in Springfield and even for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Students in the program are more likely to go on to selective enrollment high schools and college, Weible says.

This isn’t the first time the program has been in jeopardy. Just two years ago it faced financial troubles and received an outpouring of community support.

“There are times when I feel like I’m hitting my head against a wall,” Weible says of the program’s ups and downs. But “I really believe in this. When you believe in something, you will do what it takes to make it work.”

Rousemary Vega, 32, attests to the positive influence the program has on students. She lives about a mile from the school, in a modest home with a red “Support Our Schools, Don’t Close Them” sign tacked on the front door. She has one daughter in the orchestra and another who recently graduated from the program. She’s eager to show off photos of her daughters smiling and posing with their instruments.

“They’re good memories and good images of someone who loves their instrument and loves what they do,” she says.

Vega had her first child at 17. Instead of college, she went to work to support her family. She said the orchestra has given her children opportunities she never had: “That was hope. That was a future through music."

Her oldest daughter, 15-year-old Nidalis Burgos, got accepted as a music major in the selective Lincoln Park High School. Her younger daughter Meleny Ramos hopes to follow in her sister’s footsteps.

Meleny, a cello player in fifth grade, expresses concern for the program’s future.

“I love the music program, and I didn’t know this was going to happen,” Meleny said. “I wanted to play for the rest of my life.”

But CPS officials say the campus is under-utilized and should close. The school’s enrollment has dropped by more than 600 students since 2000. Officials say the closings would allow the district to run more efficiently, and they’d be able to better focus on providing more resources to schools. Most Lafayette students are slated to transfer to Fredrick Chopin Elementary, considered a higher performing school, about seven blocks away.

The possibility of Lafayette shutting down is emotional for Vega, who attended the school herself as a child.

“It was almost like family news of saying someone just died,” Vega says. “Everyone gathered in disbelief.”

Lafayette parents aren’t letting the school close without a fight. One of the leaders in that is Valerie Nelson, whose daughter Tesa plays violin in the orchestra. Nelson is also chair of Lafayette’s Local School Council. She tears up as she describes how the orchestra has allowed her shy daughter to open up on stage.

“We’ve been to Springfield; we’ve chased down senators; we’ve done walks,” she says. “I don’t know who else to beg and plead with to save our school.”

If the school is closed, the next challenge is figuring out whether Chopin has the budget and room to rebuild the orchestra program there. Weible says officials at Chopin and the Merit School of Music have expressed their hope for the program to continue.