Inside The School of Rock

Inside The School of Rock

When Chris Catalano became CEO of School of Rock, the first step he took was to address the company's mission statement. Founder Paul Green liked "saving rock'n'roll one kid at a time" when he conceived the idea for the school in 1998, but Catalano deemed that vision "a bit misguided."

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After two days of group meetings that brought together instructors, parents and franchisees, School of Rock had a new tag line: "Inspiring kids to rock onstage and in life." That was summer 2010, coinciding with School of Rock's new owners' plan to expand the number of school locations, consider international partners and drive home the notion that the school is a "community-based" learning center. "We teach the kids how to play a Led Zeppelin song. From there they can then learn about the blues," Catalano says, summarizing the school's song- and performance-based methodology. "The teamwork aspect is really important."

"The best way to learn music is to play music," says School of Rock senior VP of marketing Alyson Shapero, who joined the company last June after working at label Razor & Tie, in distribution at WEA and as an owner of Kinetic Records. She has firsthand experience as the mother of a School of Rock student. "We get them into a song and through that they learn scales, chord progressions," she says. "You find that they want to play more."

Sterling Partners, whose educational portfolio includes Sylvan, acquired School of Rock in 2009 and has increased the number of locations to 60 during the last two years. The company plans to continue growing, making a push in the West, Texas, Midwest and Canada, and is in discussions regarding expansion into India, Brazil, Ecuador and Asia. In each of those instances, locals from the countries have reached out to Catalano and School of Rock.

Not surprisingly, School of Rock is strongest in the Northeast, especially New Jersey, and around Chicago. "Opening another 100 schools over the next several years is possible, but we have to make sure we have the right partners," Catalano says. "Partners come in and get the rights to open two or three schools. We don't sell 10-school deals, and we ask that our franchisees open schools one at a time."

School of Rock isn't looking to build a collection of exact replicas. Owners are asked to have a consistency in signage, create rehearsal rooms and ensure students' safety in the building. The franchise fee, setting up a space, hiring teachers and acquiring equipment can be done for less than $200,000. About 6,000 students are in the School of Rock system, which has focused on serving musicians between the ages of 9 and 18. The company is further developing curriculum to extend into college-level band coaching, songwriting and production as well as reaching into elementary school. Shapero says School of Rock has seen 5- and 6-year-olds succeed in the school.

One advantage of having locations near such musical hotbeds as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago: guest teachers. Kiss' Gene Simmons and Marilyn Manson's Twiggy are among the rockers who have performed with students and provided guidance. When bassist Mike Watt, a founding member of the Minutemen and Firehose and currently in the Stooges, dropped in on a Los Angeles classroom, he was pleasantly surprised when the student bands performed the Minutemen's "History Lesson Part II."

"My school of rock was in the bedroom jamming to Creedence songs," says Watt, who grew up in San Pedro, Calif. He tried to learn the clarinet in junior high school and managed to stick with music after he was tossed from the marching band. Playing in the Minutemen, he says, provided a mom-approved activity that he and bandmate D. Boon could do together after school. Those were the types of stories the students wanted to hear.

"The kids are earnest," Watt says. "They ask more about the journey [of being a musician] rather than where [to] put your hands [on an instrument] . . . Perry [Farrell once] told me: 'Never lose the child's eye of wonder.' I think I quoted him when I was there."