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The Chicago school system plans to shutter 54 schools next year to save money and improve academics. Among them is Lafayette Elementary in Humboldt Park on the West Side of the city, a school with a treasured school orchestra and a program for autistic children. Valerie Nelson, 43, is a home health care worker who sends her two daughters there. A frequent volunteer at the school and a member of Stand For Children, an education advocacy group, Nelson has joined rallies to save the school. Her youngest daughter, Leza, is in the autism program, and her oldest, Tessa, has joined the orchestra. Nelson says both girls have thrived.

YouTube video
The Lafayette Elementary School orchestra in 2010

The Hechinger Report spoke with her about how she thinks the closing will affect her family and her community.

The Hechinger Report: What has your experience at Lafayette been like?

Valerie Nelson: I think of it like a family. With our school, the kids with autism are inclusion with the regular kids, so they work well together. They’ve been together from pre-K.

My [youngest] child has gone from nonverbal to speaking a few words. She’s been potty trained. She’s much more social. She’s on her second little boyfriend.

My oldest is part of a string orchestra. She plays a violin. Being part of the orchestra is pretty cool because you get to go to a lot of places…and most of the kids in orchestra have pretty good grades. They’re able to apply at selective high schools.

THR: What are the academics like?

Nelson: My [oldest] daughter is an A, B child. I really have no clue as to what’s going on with the other students, but our school has a third new staff. So that makes a difference. We also have City Year in our school, so they’re helping with tutoring and afterschool and homework. That would have made a big difference, if we [were staying open].

THR: When do you find out school was closing and how did you react?

Nelson: We knew something was going to happen back in December. We started hearing things.

[When they released the list], everyone was crying throughout the building. My oldest felt she had to be strong. She didn’t cry. Back in February we went to First Baptist Church where everyone was pleading their case for their schools, and the orchestra played.

My daughter said afterwards, “Didn’t they hear us play? Don’t they get it?”

THR: Where will your daughters go next year?

Nelson: They’ll be going to two different schools. One has a reputation for being a scarier school. One school is Lowell and they do not have a special-ed program, so they’re sending our teachers and splitting up our classes between the two schools.

I was told if my special-ed daughter goes to Lowell that my oldest daughter should go to Lowell too. The thing is, I went on the internet and checked out the reviews. Some of the reviews I read said there’s a lot of bullying going on.

My daughter is such a quiet church mouse that when something goes wrong she never tells me. It’s to the point here in [this school], everyone protects my kids. If she falls down and is crying, someone will immediately text me.

[At the new school], they don’t know me and they don’t know my kid, and I don’t know people there so it won’t be the same, and that’s what makes me nervous.

The majority of kids are going to Chopin.

THR: So you’re sending one daughter to Lowell and the other to Chopin?

Nelson: Yes. At Chopin she’ll be with kids she knows.

THR: How are you feeling about all of this?

Nelson: I’m upset. I cry a lot. I think about the school all the time. I’ve been to rallies, to Springfield, to City Hall.

Nobody wants their school closed.

I’ve listened to what they’ve said and they say they want them to go to a better school, but the thing is…there’s more to it than test scores. The teachers know about the families. They’ve been here that long ago that they were teachers for the adults. Our special education program has been here since 1997. Lafayette is the recommended school for autism. If it’s the recommended school, then why would you close it?

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