A Real School Of Rock

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At an hour of the morning when many rock 'n' rollers are hitting the sack, the members of a hard-driving band from New Jersey are just unzipping their gig bags. "We rock at 7:30 sharp," says David Wish, the band's leader, founder and token grownup. Wish's group has a lot on its schedule: a run-through of a Carlos Santana tune, some funk and blues improvisation and a tutorial in stage presence. "Make a face like you're mad, like you mean it," Wish hollers over the din of nine acoustic guitars while windmilling his arm Pete Townshend — style. Their lips snarling, their E chords ringing, his bandmates are already killing — and they have math tests today.

The scrappy rockers, ages 11 to 17, are students at North Star Academy, a public charter school in Newark, N.J., that had no formal music curriculum three years ago. Now it hosts a small but rollicking before-school guitar class run by Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit organization that doles out free instruments and lessons in popular music in more than 120 public schools in Newark, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area and Memphis, Tenn. At a time when already anemic school arts budgets are dwindling, the unconventional program is thriving and enjoying a bit of fortuitous buzz. One of the fall's hottest movies, School of Rock, starring Jack Black as a head-banging substitute teacher, is spreading the mantra that kids playing rock 'n' roll can change the world — or at least look irresistibly cute trying.

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Frustrated by the lack of funding for music in his own public school, Wish, 36, started a "peanut-sized" operation while he was both a primary-grades teacher and a moonlighting jazz guitarist in Redwood City, Calif., in 1996. Wish borrowed instruments from friends and began recording his students and mailing CDs to local musicians known for philanthropy, like Santana and Bonnie Raitt. Soon the stars were dropping in for jam sessions. "I was especially knocked out by one of the young girls who I could see was nailing the guitar parts," says Raitt. "The whole experience gave me vivid flashbacks of the thrill and joy I felt every time it was music period."

In 2001 Wish started enlisting other teachers who were music hobbyists to help him take his program to more schools. Little Kids Rock has grown steadily since then, thanks to grants, gifts from instrument manufacturers — including $120,000 in drum kits this year and proceeds from sales of student CDs. Next year Wish, who operated on a modest $150,000 budget this year, plans to launch classes in Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. He's also recruiting musicians for Little Kids, Big Fans, a CD of real rock stars playing his students' songs.

North Star sixth-grader Oluyomi Ijandipe explains the appeal of Wish's program from a kid's perspective. "In a regular music class, you've gotta raise your hand," says the baby-faced B.B. King fan. "In this one, you're just hangin'." This could, of course, be an argument for sticking with regular music classes. Except that in most cases, there are no regular music classes. Sixty percent of students in grades K through 12 in the U.S. get no music at all in school, according to the Music Education Coalition, a group made up of instrument makers and music teachers. There are several for-profit programs that give lessons in rock music, including one that claims to have inspired the Jack Black movie. But Little Kids Rock's national scope and nonprofit status make it unique. Wish, more pedagogue than punk when class is out, makes the case for his approach to music education. "If a kid is engaged, you win," he says. "And then that creativity transfers to every other part of their lives."

Wish's students, who are selected on a first-come, first-served basis, learn to play by ear, not by reading music — a kind of Suzuki method meets the Rolling Stones. They almost immediately start improvising and writing surprisingly good songs — an 8 year-old's composition, Little Dinosaur, downloadable on littlekids rock.org, is a child-size Sgt. Pepper's — era Beatles tune. The musical styles range from rap to folk rock. When a classmate plays a moody new original at North Star one morning, "it makes me think of some old Bob Dylan stuff," says Jessica Dunston, 16, who is proud of her broad taste in music. "Most of my friends like hip-hop. I like that. I like punk," she says, ticking off a finger. "And heavy metal, speed metal, grunge, Sade, Prince, Jimi Hendrix ..." You get the idea. Like the kids in School of Rock, Wish's students are picking up a passion for music that comes from making their own.

Little Kids Rock is different from the film in some key ways, however. "In the movie, it's one teacher and one class full of privileged kids," Wish says. "In real life, it's hundreds of teachers, thousands of kids, and it's free." Truth, in this case, rocks harder than fiction.