Keep Them Singing! Chicago School Fights To Save Its Orchestra

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CHICAGO — The violin isn’t pretty, but its scratched frame has been well-loved by the girl who cradles it now, and those who played it before her. Her mother calls it her daughter’s “soul mate.”

The instrument doesn’t belong to Nidalis Burgos. It is on loan from her school, where the seventh-grader packs it up each weekday to bring it home.

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She practices anywhere she can – in her bedroom, in the kitchen, on her back porch so she can hear the sound reverberate off the brick apartment buildings that line the alley. Usually, she warms up with “Ode to Joy,” her mother’s favorite song, and a fitting theme for a girl who truly seems to love playing.

“Music brings a little peace to the mind,” the 13-year-old says.

Her own frame is so tiny that she plays a violin that is three-quarters the standard size. But when she plays it, she feels big, powerful even.

That is a common feeling among the 85 students who play in the after-school string orchestras at the Lafayette Specialty School, a public school in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, where more than 90 percent of the students come from poverty.

Though gentrifying with occasional upscale condominium buildings, this is a place where it’s not always easy to be a kid, where gang members are often seen standing on street corners, and where too many students are witnesses to violence.

“They live in one of the wealthiest cities and wealthiest nations in the world, and some of these students have barely anything,” principal Trisha Shrode says. “Some of them don’t have clean clothes. They don’t have items for school.”

It’s A Way Out Of The Neighborhood

Here, a music program is not just a music program. For many students, it is a way out of the neighborhood, to a better high school and, in some cases, a better life.

That is why Shrode and her staff are working so hard to save it, though it remains to be seen whether they can do that.

These are difficult times for arts programs in schools. Across the country, and not just in low-income districts, music programs are often seen as expendable.

In wealthier Colts Neck, N.J., for instance, the high school is losing its choral program. “It’s very discouraging,” says Debra Nemeth-Tarby, an elementary teacher in the district who, like a lot of music teachers, has become all too used to the economic cycles that often imperil the arts before other subjects. She worries that her own two grown children also have chosen careers in music, one of them as a teacher.

Districts Laid Off Music Teachers

Some districts have laid off music teachers already. Still more teachers are waiting for school budgets to be finalized to see if they’ll still have jobs in the fall. Some districts have delayed the start of instrumental music classes to fifth or sixth grade, instead of fourth.

“It’s a gentler way to cut – but it’s still a cut,” says Mary Leuhrsen, executive director of the NAMM Foundation, the philanthropic and educational arm of the National Association of Music Merchants.

In Los Angeles and other cities, students and parents have protested proposed cuts to music programs.

In Chicago at the Lafayette school, Shrode and her staff have had their own share of budget pain. In recent years, she has circulated a survey to ask every teacher which programs they most wanted to keep. Each time, the after-school orchestra program has come up first or second on the list. So, so far, she has cut other programs instead – full-day kindergarten, for instance.

Funding Challenges

But now there are new funding challenges.

The nonprofit Merit School of Music, which started Lafayette’s after-school orchestra program a decade ago, notified Shrode recently that it would have to cut its financial support, from covering about 70 percent of the annual cost to covering 60 percent. Duffie Adelson, Merit’s president, blamed a fundraising climate that is difficult at best.

Next year, the school will be responsible for about $46,000, which partly covers pay for teachers and instrument upkeep and replacement. That’s a more than $10,000 increase in cost to the school.

And there may be more cuts in the school budget coming, as the new Chicago mayor and his schools CEO take office.

A lot of principals have resigned themselves to the constant struggle their arts programs face.

But Shrode has decided to try something different, something creative.

The school had always had bake sales and sold concert tickets, CDs and T-shirts to raise money for the program. But what if they upped the ante? What if they and their students could get private donors – and even neighborhood residents – to give enough money to make the program self-sustaining?

“We have to draw on resources that schools have otherwise ignored,” Shrode insists.

Some call it an optimistic, if not crazy idea, especially in a low-income neighborhood where people have little to give to a program like this – and when outside donors also are scarce.

But Shrode wants to try. She wants the music program to not just survive, but to grow to accommodate the many students on the program’s waiting list.

At 3 p.m. each school day, orchestra students head to a large classroom for practice.

At first, the room is the very definition of cacophony with its mix of stringed instruments being tuned and the rowdiness of students coming down from the dramas of the day.

Then Arturs Weible, the school’s music teacher, stands before them, his voice booming orders to sit down and settle in. He is one of four instructors hired by Merit to run the after-school orchestras and to lead small group tutorials; his students range from third- to eighth-graders.

Though not all are friends, he says, “they all get that we’re part of a group,” something that rarely happens during the school day.

“It’s at that after-school part of the day,” he says, “where the kids all come together and really make a wonderful experience.”

When he begins conducting, discord slowly turns to harmony.

“Ooooooohhhh!” he says loudly, smiling or even hopping up and down when he likes something his students play together.

“I live for that,” Weible says. “THAT is the joy in teaching right there.”

His enthusiasm for the music is clearly infectious with his students. When he is around, they’re more likely to sit up a bit straighter and to keep each other in check.

“Nobody works harder than Mr. Weible,” says Nidalis, who is well aware that her teacher – a father of two whose wife is an aide at another school – also has second and third jobs, giving private music lessons at his home and teaching university classes on weekends.

On Fridays, Weible is often at the school until 5 p.m. with a group of “all stars,” who’ve maintained the best grades in their core classes and who’ve become orchestra leaders. Nidalis is one of them.

“Knowing how hard he works makes me want to work harder, too,” she says.

Her mom, Rousemary Vega, marvels at the difference Weible and the Merit music program have made at the school, which Vega attended in the late `80s and early `90s. It’s the reason she has her children stay there, she says.

“People used to say, `Oh, that school!’ But now they’re showing everyone that they have something to offer,” she says.

Her hopes for Nidalis, her oldest child, are “big, very big,” says Vega, who has worked as a baby sitter since she was laid off from her job as an administrative assistant with the city of Chicago. Nidalis’ stepfather is a landscaper.

Nidalis has her own big dreams. She hopes to get into Lane Tech High School on Chicago’s North Side. She’d like to play in the orchestra there, wants to study hard so she can get into college. Eventually, she’d like to go to law school.

First things first – while attending eighth grade at Lafayette in the fall, she will likely be concertmistress for the advanced after-school orchestra, making her the designated student leader and teacher assistant.

It will be yet another accomplishment for a girl whose room in the family apartment is already lined with trophies and plaques – for honor roll, the science fair, pompom squad, perfect attendance and, of course, orchestra.

They are the kind of honors that have helped other Lafayette students get into some of the more highly sought-after public high schools in Chicago.

Eighth-grader Jaylen Hall will be going to one of those schools, Lincoln Park High School, in the fall. His mother, Yahaira Rivera, has little doubt that playing the violin helped him get in, helped him to focus.

“He’s at the point where he could be doing other stuff that I could be struggling with – gangs or things that he shouldn’t be into,” she says.

That’s why, even after they moved to a neighborhood 16 miles away, on the city’s South Side, she continued to keep him enrolled at Lafayette, which is just northwest of downtown Chicago.

Each morning, they get up at 6 so Jaylen can get to school on time and his mom to her job at a bank near the school.

“Jaylen hates to be late, hates to be absent,” his mother says, laughing. And that is absolutely fine with her.

Jaylen and about 100 others were up early on a recent chilly Saturday morning, gathering in the park for which Humboldt Park was named. It is a park often associated with drug deals and other crime.

This morning, however, parents, teachers and students were marching around its perimeter. They were joined by representatives of corporate and nonprofit organizations that have donated to the school’s orchestra program.

At another school event, dubbed “Stuck for Strings,” students bought strands of duct tape for $1 apiece to literally tape those volunteers to a wall.

Both events were early signs that principal Shrode might just be right – that this community and other supporters would rally around her cause.

So far, the fundraisers have brought in more than $6,000, while a neighborhood nonprofit called Reason to Give is well over halfway to its goal of raising another $5,000 for the music program, Shrode said.

That will cover the cuts made in the Merit budget – but Shrode eventually would like to raise enough to cover the entire cost to the school, little by little, to make sure the program is always there.

As Weible likes to say, “We’re doing it by hook or by crook. But we’re getting there.”

Leaders at the Merit School of Music have been so impressed that they invited students from the Lafayette orchestra to play at their spring fundraiser, an event attended by wealthy donors.

Leuhrsen, from the NAMM Foundation, also praised the school’s efforts.

“This is a relentlessness and belief in children that needs to be celebrated and acknowledged,” she says.

She does worry that many schools in low-income neighborhoods might be missing out on federal funding for arts education through such programs as Title I because they don’t know they can get it. Lafayette does get Title I money, which it can use for the music program. But Shrode says the needs at the school are so great for so many things that, if they can raise the orchestra money independently, they could use the federal money for, say, another reading intervention specialist or maybe even full-day kindergarten, some day.

For the young musicians at Lafayette, all that matters is that there is enough money so they can keep playing, as they did in May at a Merit festival at Chicago’s downtown Orchestra Hall.

The morning of the concert, students rushed onto yellow school buses with their instruments, eager for their chance to play on the big stage.

“When the lights are shining, they do their best,” Weible excitedly told a bus driver.

Some of the youngest students, on their first visit to Orchestra Hall, stared up at the ornate ceiling as they waited to play. Others fidgeted. One accidentally plucked a string, prompting a “shh” from an older student.

Nidalis and Jaylen were among those who played with an advanced group, which included students from other schools with Merit programs.

When they finished their three songs, all of them proudly took a bow.

“We rock!” Nidalis shouted, as they walked backstage and out of the auditorium.

She removed her shoes and skipped giddily through the hallways, the sound of applause and whistles still echoing behind her.

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