WEST TOWN — A week after Block Club Chicago published a story about the Frederic Chopin Elementary School Orchestra program’s financial reliance on donations and corporate concerts, an online fundraiser for the orchestra has more than doubled.
In an effort to move the Frederic Chopin Elementary School orchestra away from its current reliance on CPS funding, director Arturs Weible is offering himself and his 75 violists, violinists and cellists — all students between the ages of 3rd and 8th grade — for hire.
Before the article published, the fundraiser was about $5,000. It currently sits at $14,046.
Holly Eger, the organizer of the school’s first corporate concert, texted a Block Club reporter last week with the news.
“We are all so grateful to you,” Eger said. “I think you got the whole town donating. … A lot of the donations are $25 or less but it adds up.”
Even world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma sung the orchestra’s praises.
Several Chopin orchestra students sent a thank-you card to the newsroom.
“Thank you for writing about our school orchestra in Block Club Chicago. We have raised lots of more money since your article appeared.”
In an age when funding the arts is becoming increasingly difficult in public schools, Weible decided to forge a relationship with Chicago’s private sector.
Private concerts — whether in the form of hired entertainment or a benefit event — are one way Weible hopes to offset the $50,000 the orchestra normally draws from Chicago Public Schools’ “discretionary budget” in an academic year.
And it just might work. During the month of May, private fundraising through a single benefit concert and an online donation system netted $10,000 for the program.
“I shudder to think of the ‘what-ifs,’” Weible said. “Should the program go away, then you have one of the most stable and omnipresent [after-school] options — because it’s four days a week — you reduce the amount of time in school, and you increase the amount of time on the streets.”
News of the funding idea encouraged many readers to donate.
When author Eve Ewing shared the story in a Twitter thread, she wrote, “We need to fight for school funding structures where ALL students have consistent access to high-quality arts education. and we need to support kids like the students at Chopin so they don’t lose something special, and so that their joy can continue to remind us what’s possible.”
Chopin Elementary School, 2450 W. Rice St., is in Humboldt Park. The school is a few blocks north of Smith Park, a West Town neighborhood.
More than 90 percent of Chopin students live below the poverty line, Weible said. Students are 67.6 percent Hispanic and 24.1 percent Black, according to CPS statistics.
The school is a magnet arts school and the orchestra is one of the city’s largest.
“Because of this program, we still have students who don’t live within [the] immediate boundary, but choose to come to Chopin school,” he said. “It increases enrollment, which increases the budget, which keeps us more viable in eyes of CPS.”
On May 29, the orchestra played the first of what Weible hopes will be many benefit concerts in Downtown.
The fundraiser took place at the office of Rewards Network, a network-based marketing and financial technology company.
It just so happens Eger — the wife of the company’s CEO, Ed Eger — was best friends with Chopin art teacher Sarah Larson in college at Harvard University, where Eger played the oboe.
On the day of the fundraiser, Weible and his orchestra played a concert that brought tears to the classical musician’s eyes.
“When you see a 4th grader sawing a violin, playing their heart out, it makes you want to be a better person,” she said. “They were better than I ever dared imagine they would be. They were so good. They really had practiced.”
Perhaps the most shocking part of the concert, Eger said, was the response of Rewards Network’s 100 employees, who appeared genuinely relaxed and entertained.
The next day, many employees asked Ed Eger if the orchestra could come back and perform during their Christmas lunch.
“I think all companies should adopt” the orchestra, Holly Eger said. “If everybody chips in a little bit then we can keep these orchestras.”
That night, the fundraiser raked in more than $2,500. Some employees wrote checks for $1,000, while parents chipped in $2.
All donations go toward the program’s $138,000 budget, which covers salaries for three teachers who assist Weible in after-school practices four days a week, as well as daytime and summer tutoring.
The budget also covers instrument maintenance since all students have their own so they can practice at home, Weible said.
Orchestra alums have gone on to play music professionally: One is a double bassist in New Orleans, another an operatic tenor touring Europe.
The vast majority of these students graduate high school. Many are enrolled in college. Some have doctoral degrees.
“I don’t have the facts and figures, but I would be happy to make the bet that our students go onto selective enrollment high schools, and go to college,” he said. “I’d be more than willing to bet that our students do at a better clip than average. We solve that issue directly.”
While there is no current “overt push to close” Chopin, the diminishing access to funding concerns Weible.
“I’m a little more sanguine about it than I was six years ago,” Weible said. “But it is dismaying to have to fight every single year to fight to keep our program viable.”