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Schools of rock


When staffing shortages forced the Phoenix-Talent School District to take a closer look at its K-5 music program, longtime band teacher Mike DeRoest came up with the perfect solution.

“Well look,” he said, “we’re struggling with elementary music right now; lots of school districts start band in the fifth grade. So what if I teach at the high school in the mornings and in the afternoons I travel between the three elementaries and start elementary school band?”

Phoenix-Talent superintendent Brent Barry loved the idea, and now for the first time in as long as anyone can remember every elementary school in the district – Phoenix Elementary, Talent Elementary and Orchard Hill Elementary - will have a fifth-grade band class.

DeRoest’s first cohort will include 160 students between the three schools for the 2021-22 school year. Every student will be provided an instrument, thanks in part to a generous post-Almeda fire donation drive by the Rogue Valley Symphony.

Squeezing band class into each school’s core curriculum one day a week rather than offering it as an elective was a strategic move made by the elementary principals. With some instruments running upwards of $500, an elective band class that requires parents to foot the bill can be cost-prohibitive, DeRoest said. For some families, that’s too steep a price for something that may not last, so in the interest of inclusion, the instruments are being provided at no cost.

“Some families make the decision that that’s just not something that we can finance, so a lot of kids who might be interested in playing in band and maybe wouldn’t feel comfortable coming in asking to use a school instrument might just make that decision, ‘hey, that’s an opportunity we’re just going to have to let go,’” DeRoest said. “So with the way we’re doing things right now, every kid that is in fifth grade is going to at least get to try it out and decide if this is something that they really would like to do. And then later on, if families see that there’s a lot of interest, that might make it a little bit easier to make that decision to rent an instrument. But also, since all the kids are going to be using school instruments this year, they should be OK saying, ‘Hey, where’s that saxophone I used last year, can I use that one again?’”

So far, band has been a big hit, said Phoenix Elementary principal Shawna Schleif, who initially was as curious as anyone to see how a class of 31 students was going to handle the responsibility of drum sticks. Turns out, pretty well.

“And Mr. DeRoest was doing such a fantastic job of doing kind of a call and response, repeat after me, mimic my rhythm,” Schleif said, “…You could have heard a dime drop when he would go, ‘OK, sticks up.’ That to me is a testament that kids are really thirsty for this kind of engagement, this new learning for them. They’re really excited.”

DeRoest said one of the long-term goals for the program is to rebuild the marching band, which is down to 25 students this year from a high of about 75 in previous years. But it’s more than that, he said.

“Another thing that I think is important,” he said, “is we have a lot of students in the middle school and high school right now that have never been in a band class that have no idea what it is that we do, no idea what you can get out of being a part of a program like band. I don’t think that there’s any chance that all 160 of our fifth-graders are going to get all the way through their senior year in band – there’s always those kids that make other choices of what they want to do with their time. But this way they’ll all have a connection of some kind and they’ll know what band is about. And They’ll know that it is fun and it’s work, and it’s definitely something of value.”

Schleif agreed.

“This is the beginning of a journey, hopefully a lifelong journey,” she said. “Some kids will take this up and use it as, they want to be in band in middle school and then in marching band in high school and jazz band and all those kinds of things. But it also just might be something that is an experience that then gets another passion lit in students’ lives.

“So of course, because we value the arts my hope is that this encourages kids to keep going with music because it would be really helpful for students. And so we’ll see. We definitely want to continue to grow our music programs K-12, that’s our goal.”

For interview requests, please contact Phoenix-Talent SD communications specialist Joe Zavala at