This spring the students of Churchill Alternative School, in Ottawa, Ontario, will be marking a major milestone, as will the school staff and community. This year is the tenth anniversary of the Churchill School of Rock (CSOR). In Ottawa’s Westboro community, Churchill School of Rock has what amounts to a cult following among the students, former grads, and especially the parents who have had children participate in this annual event. What is all the fuss about? Well, at its core, Churchill School of Rock is a junior choir of students singing rock and roll songs, but, in reality, CSOR is far more than that.
To get a full picture you need to understand where this program started. Eleven years ago the junior choir at Churchill Alternative School was being run by a dedicated teacher, Maggie Kerkhoff, who loved choral music, but could only scrape together just over a dozen junior students to commit to singing once a week and performing a show for their parents once a year. Though the primary choir had numbers that pushed 90 singers, the vibe among the juniors was that singing just wasn’t cool.
The students couldn’t really be blamed for their attitude. These were the days before Glee and the modern musical, and though a few students took piano lessons after school, there was little focus on music in the school. Teachers taught what they could, given the restrictions of time and ability to meet curriculum expectations in the classroom setting, and that was it. There were very artistic teachers on staff, but it was a transition period for staff at the school, and music in particular was not a priority at Churchill, or anywhere else across the province (as evidenced by cuts to specialist teachers and music programs). At least one of the nearby middle schools had a strong drama program, but no instrumental music at all, so even in the greater community, music was something that did not get much attention before high school.
The now-retired Kerkhoff and Shawn Smith, an educational assistant who supported her by playing guitar on a few songs, discussed the direction of the choir after several students opted to go to swimming lessons rather than perform at their year-end recital. They reflected that the most energy was put into the song on which a couple of teachers at the school joined in to accompany Shawn on guitar. The students responded to the extra support of the instruments and staff involvement, and it got Shawn and Maggie thinking.