Celebrating a decade of rock and roll at Churchill Alternative School (plus awesome photo gallery)

By Anne Boys-Hope –

It’s lunchtime and students are packed into the music room at Churchill Alternative School in Westboro, belting out a heartfelt rendition of the Beatles classic “Hey Jude.” This is Churchill School of Rock—the school’s junior choir—rehearsing for their hugely popular annual concert, which will be taking place on May 8.

“This is one thing they all work towards, and look forward to each year,” says Ray Kalynuk, Churchill teacher and Westboro resident. “The younger students look forward to it and the older ones miss it when they finish.”

Churchill students show off the different School of Rock t-shirt designs over the years. Photo by Kate Settle
Churchill students show off the different School of Rock t-shirt designs over the years. Photo by Kate Settle

Churchill School of Rock is well known in the community for its rock n’ roll vibe, and this year they celebrate with a special tenth anniversary concert featuring favourite songs, and the return of alumni School of Rockers.

Kalynuk has been involved since the beginning, managing production and learning the guitar along the way. Over the past decade, he says the group has performed for more than 8000 people at dozens of concerts, including Westfest.

“Getting students on stage to play instruments in those early years, and then just stepping back during the song to leave them out there, front and center, enjoying the moment, and playing their hearts out—those were magic moments,” says Kalynuk.

School of Rock grew out of the need to draw more students into the school choir. Teachers decided to switch out the traditional choral repertoire with popular music—from the Beatles to Twisted Sister, Neil Young to Van Halen, and everything in between.

“They had the idea to build a band of teachers and parent volunteers to provide instrumental music, and to choose rock and roll songs the students could get excited about singing,” recalls Kalynuk.

It worked. What once attracted a dozen students, quickly drew anywhere from 90 to 100 students each year. The annual concert became so popular it outgrew the school gym, and moved to larger venues in the community.

School of Rock is open to junior students (grades 4, 5 and 6), but it’s something that even the youngest students aspire to.

“I remember being in kindergarten, and I remember saying ‘I can’t wait until School of Rock starts,’” says 12-year-old Cayley Fortier.

Eleven-year-old Kenny Hammond, who also plays double bass in Ottawa’s Senior Strings, likes that the choir is inclusive of all students.

“I like School of Rock because anyone can join. It’s really good because you get to sing songs that you really like, with your friends.”

Fortier agrees. “I like it because it brings out everyone’s personalities, and bonds people together.”

Principal Megan Egerton sees the benefits first-hand.

“I think that all extra-curricular events in a school can create an additional sense of belonging and community and School of Rock does this. Students are exposed to music they may not have been exposed to before, develop self-confidence and learn about the rewards of taking risks and doing something that can be scary (performing in front of peers and parents).”

That translates into students who actually want to go to school.

“Churchill is a true community, and so artistic and creative. The teachers are just working so hard to make learning fun—you’re not waking up every morning and thinking ‘I don’t want to go to school,’” says 11-year-old Ben Van Dine.

School of Rock’s success has had other unexpected benefits, including helping to build a thriving music scene at Churchill.

“Funds raised by the program helped purchase over 40 ukuleles to start a strings program. The interest in music spawned the creation of a strings club who meet once a week, a uke club, and a guitar club,” says Kalynuk.

Behind the scenes, School of Rock is fuelled by the hard work of many students, teachers, parent volunteers and community members. Parent volunteer Jeff Endenburg is currently the musical director.

“We are lucky because we have teachers who are willing to put in this time. Getting us ready for it, designing t-shirts; if everyone doesn’t help, it’s not going to happen,” says 12-year-old Miranda Beaton.

Kalynuk says it’s all worth it.

“Ask any of the teachers involved and they will talk about the way they see students engaged, and succeeding, and how it gives them a reason to do it again and again.”

This years’ grade six graduating class approaches their final concert, and their final weeks at Churchill, with mixed emotions.

“For me, it’s the signature stamp of Churchill,” says Van Dine, who hopes for a career in the arts. “It’s definitely played a key role in my life.”

It’s an experience many students say they won’t forget.

“Singing on a stage with your friends, playing your favourite songs, this is once in a lifetime,” says Hammond.

Churchill School of Rock will be performing in two anniversary concerts at Nepean High School on Friday, May 8: the first at noon for parents and students, and the second at 7 p.m. for all School of Rock alumni (students, staff, and parents). They’ll also be performing at Westfest on the community stage (near BMO), on Saturday, June 13 at 11 a.m.

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