HUMBOLDT PARK — Talk to parents of Lafayette Elementary School, and one topic frequently comes up — the string orchestra.
It's no wonder. The Humboldt Park school's orchestra is 85 students strong and is the largest dedicated string orchestra in the Chicago Public Schools system, according to its director, Lafayette music teacher Arturs Weible.
Even as supporters rallied in front of 26th Ward Ald. Roberto Maldonado's office last Thursday to protest the school's proposed closure, sixth-grader Tatiana Lebron could be seen with her viola strung around her shoulders, having come straight from orchestra practice to the protest.
"They are incredible," Weible said of the student musicians.
A violinist and violist himself, the 42-year-old Weible has spent 15 years teaching music and heading up the string orchestra at the school.
This won't be the first time Weible has had to battle for the program — budgets and program cuts are always looming — but it's by far the biggest.
"The day [the final school-closure list] came out, it was as close to an out-of-body experience as I've ever had in my life," he said. "I was walking around and was kind of detached, but then I said, 'OK, enough of the funereal atmosphere. Now [it's time} to keep doing what I've been doing for 15 years, which is fight for this program."
To that end, one of orchestra's after-school assistants posted a video of a March 13 concert featuring current string players, along with a few alumni, some of them now in college.
"One of my colleagues with the orchestra put that up online, and I'm glad that she did that because it's going viral, and that's what we need to save our school," Weible said.
Weible and his colleagues organized the concert in hopes of drawing attention to the program, which he said would be "incredibly difficult" to recreate at another school.
"We wanted them to come back and play with our current crop of awesome kids to show that not only is this program unique but that it makes a lasting impact," he said.
Nearly a third of the school's students have special needs — double the CPS average — something Weible said enhances the orchestra.
Parents and teachers alike have emphasized Lafayette's unique strengths in handling special needs students, and Weible said the orchestra is no different.
One new violin player whose birth defect left one of her arms considerably shorter was able to play thanks to Weible and his colleagues — who simply strung the violin backward to make it easier for her to play.
Like other teachers at closing schools, Weible's own livelihood is under threat. If he doesn't get a job offer at one of the "welcoming" schools or another school by July, he'll be out of a job.
But he emphasized his concern for the students has always been his driving force.
"This is too important a program to let some nameless bureaucrat somewhere check a box and condemn 85 kids," he said.