School of Rock Celebrates Five Years of Music and Community in Chapel Hill

Justin Ellis, School of Rock general manager/music director.  (Photo by Tom Simon) 


This month, School of Rock in Chapel Hill celebrated five years of music lessons and programs for youth and adults. With more than 300 locations worldwide, including seven in North Carolina, the School of Rock name may sound familiar, but the Chapel Hill franchise carries its own unique feel and takes pride in being an Orange County Living Wage employer.

David Joseph opened School of Rock in 2017 after finding a perfectly situated and special location – the diner on Fordham Boulevard, where he used to eat with his family. While Joseph kept some of the original character like the booths and stools, the exterior lights give it “just a smidge of Vegas,” he says.

The hallways inside are covered with dozens of colorful posters of student shows and album covers, photos of music instructors and students celebrating birthdays and achievements, and a framed living wage employer certificate.

From the beginning, Joseph wanted to attract and retain quality employees who felt appreciated. He also recognized that truly happy employees create a positive environment for students. For employees who want to make music their career, Joseph wants to make that possible for them by paying a living wage.

“People are going to choose their life path,” says Joseph. “But if they’re going to be here in Chapel Hill and they do music, I’d love for them to come hang out with us.”

Justin Ellis, one of School of Rock’s 21 employees, started in 2018 as an instructor for bass, drums, and voice but gradually took on more responsibilities. In 2020, he became the music director.

Two weeks ago, Ellis was promoted to general manager/music director.

“To work for a place that I so desperately wish existed when I was growing up is the coolest thing,” says Ellis. “I definitely have the best job in the world.”

Ellis reflected on his years working in the service industry before joining School of Rock. As an independent musician, he supplemented his income with jobs in restaurants, movie theaters, and warehouses – he thought a living wage workplace was not an option.

“It was conditioned to me that getting two dollars an hour plus tips was what you had to do if you wanted to play music,” he says.

School of Rock’s living wage “signals to our people that we’re doing what we can to take care of them and make it a fun and attractive place to work,” Ellis says. “I think based on our growth and the roster of instructors we have now, it’s definitely working.”

Photo courtesy of School of Rock Chapel Hill

Summer Camps and Shows

Of the 280 students who take weekly music lessons at School of Rock in Chapel Hill, roughly half also participate in a group program, such as Rock 101, Rock 201, and Performance. These students sign up for a theme, spend four months learning the songs, and finish with a show.

On June 26 from noon until 5 pm, Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro will showcase several School of Rock student performances – a mid-season preview show. A $10 donation at the door is suggested and appreciated.

“The whole point of School of Rock is teaching people how to play together as a band and getting them on stage and in front of an audience because that’s where the magic happens,” says Joseph. “I’ve heard from many, many parents that the kid wouldn’t get out of bed for anything, but when it’s School of Rock day, it’s, ‘Come on Mom. Hurry up. It’s time. We’re gonna be late.’”

Photo courtesy of School of Rock Chapel Hill

School of Rock’s popular summer camps for youth are beginning to sell out, but openings remain for two of the camps, including a songwriting camp in August. Ellis enjoys teaching this camp, as he finds he learns more about students through their writing than when they play “Back in Black” by AC/DC on the guitar, for example.

“You see a whole other side of the kids that you just don’t see when you’re drilling ‘Back in Black,’” he says. “I love to drill ‘Back in Black.’ Don’t get me wrong. But getting to know these kids as creative people is definitely one of my absolute favorite things about the camp and the job in general.”