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An inner city school fights to save its orchestra

By Martha Irvine

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, June 5 2011 11:10 p.m. MDT

In this May 5, 2011 photo, Nidalis Burgos keeps her eye on the conductor during a rehearsal for the after-school orchestra at Lafayette Specialty School in Chicago. Nadalis' mother calls her daughter's violin her "soul mate." 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.

Charles Rex Arbogast, Associated Press

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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