Justin King feels he’s right where he needs to be –– on Cloud 9. The 17-year-old senior remembers being a freshman and looking with awe at older CAM students such as Black Market Garden singer Jack Bellomy. Now King plays drums in the band.
“Jack’s been in the program, it seems like, forever,” King said. “When I came here as a freshman, I watched them play with the other drummer and bass player they had. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, they’re really cool. I’ll never be able to play as good as that.’ Now I play with them.”
King is one of many students who ping-pongs between programs. He also plays trombone in marching band and piano and drums in the jazz band.
“It’s a lot, but it’s so fun,” he said. “This is the school for music. My mom had to leave the state for health reasons, and she wanted me to go, but I was like … I said let me finish this year, and I’ll figure it out after that. This is the place. Everything you wanted to do music-wise is here. Whether you want to be rapper, or you want to play trumpet, this is the best school.”
Next year he’ll seek a music degree at the University of North Texas or the University of Texas at Arlington, and eventually he will become a band director. He won’t forget Petrilli and CAM, he said, and he plans to return in the future to help out.
“There are so many people in this program that you can look up to,” King said. “Jack looked up to other people, and now people look up to him. He comes back here, and he’s like a star. I love this program. It went from a closet to a huge program.”
The closet, also known as The Submarine, is where CAM planted its roots in fall 2009. Remember the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic that led to the deaths of thousands of people in the United States and hundreds of thousands of people across the globe? In April of 2009, schools across the country began closing temporarily to prevent the spread of the disease. The Fort Worth school district closed for a week as well as another day that was optional.
Petrilli taught algebra and geometry at Southwest. After adding a wife and children to the mix, he decided to get out of the music business due to the late hours. His wife’s parents lived in Fort Worth, and the Petrilli family headed to Cowtown. Petrilli landed a job at Southwest in 2006.
He’d settled down, but he hadn’t forgotten about music. The multi-instrumentalist kept guitars, basses, keyboards, and other instruments around his house for fun. It was during one of those lightly attended optional days that Petrilli decided to haul his drum set, bass, guitar, and other instruments to class. He stuffed them in a corner of his room and told students they could jam at day’s end.
A few students couldn’t wait.
“This kid, Robert Baker, sits down to play, and my jaw dropped,” Petrilli said. “He was that good. He grew up playing organ in church.”
Then another popped in.
“There was a kid named Marco Martinez who ran into my room and said, ‘Oh, I love music!’ He grabbed a guitar and started playing this amazing stuff like Jimi Hendrix and shredding,” Petrilli recalled. “Then he said, ‘I got to go. I got class!’ He runs in, picks up a guitar, blows my mind, and then runs out.”
Word quickly spread about plans for the afternoon jam session. Students crammed into the classroom and had a lot of fun.
Petrilli broadened his reputation as a cool teacher after he and some student musicians filmed a music video in the school auditorium during a pep rally. They were recording a video jingle to submit to Church’s Chicken for a contest. At one point Petrilli leaped from an elevated stage to wide applause.
Students weren’t the only ones to take note of their badass teacher.
Principal Yassmin Lee encouraged Petrilli by allowing him to transform The Submarine into a rehearsal hall and recording studio. That after-school program for misfit musicians quickly led to the creation of the Rowdy Raiders, led by Martinez, the kid with the Hendrix-like chops. They recorded a rock EP in 2009 and entered the “Cowtown Rocks” battle of the band contest at Paschal High School in spring 2010. They almost missed the contest, arriving with seconds to spare in a beat-up car that was about to conk out (similar to a scene, strangely enough, from the movie School of Rock). But the guys played great and took first prize.
Gone By Sunrise, a group of talented rockers at Paschal, learned about Southwest’s recording studio and asked if they could record there. Petrilli welcomed them, and it lit a fire under some of his students.
“The bands here were going, ‘Whoa, guys from Paschal are coming here and recording?’ ” Petrilli recalled, laughing. “They got better quick. There’s that rivalry between Southwest and Paschal.”
Before long, several bands were using The Submarine for rehearsal space after school. As long as Petrilli or another teacher was around, the kids could stay as long they wanted. Often they stayed for hours after the final school bell had been rung.
Petrilli’s success with the students impressed Dunn, the marching band director. He’d been thinking about expanding the school’s music program for several years and saw an opportunity.
“In 2004, the principal had come to me with a drummer,” Dunn said. “This little guy loved drums but didn’t like school. He said, ‘Mr. Dunn, all I want to do is play drums.’ I sat him down. He played. He was the bomb. The kid had chops. He could play grooves, Latin, jazz, rock.”
But the kid couldn’t read music, which is required to play in the marching band.
“That day, I said, ‘I’m tired of not having something for these other kids,’ ” Dunn said. “I went and started to research rock groups. How did they get where they’re at? Is there a rock college? Is there something where kids are learning the business world in music?”
Dunn figured Petrilli was the missing link, the guy who could catch all of the non-music readers and guerrilla rockers and give them a structured outlet. Petrilli and Dunn studied curricula and designed the one that would become CAM. After a few years, the demand from students was so fierce that the after-school program became an official elective program with Petrilli at the helm.
“Now his program is loaded,” Dunn said. “He’s producing CDs. He’s got kids playing all over [town], making money. I love this guy. What turned out to be helping kids that need their own little niche turned into the School of Music at Southwest High School.”
An unexpected result was the integration.
“The programs all help each other,” Dunn said. “It’s a melting pot of ideas and creativity. We’re very blessed to have the people we have, and we love to work together. It’s fun. Long hours but fun.”
CAM became an official program in 2011 after the district designated Southwest High as a gold seal program of choice for music. The gold seal designation recognizes schools of choice with curricula based on student’s interests and needs in a 21st-century marketplace.
Petrilli vacated The Submarine in 2012 for larger digs. His studio now includes a room with 12 computers equipped with recording software. And there’s a large closet to hold all of the guitars, basses, and other instruments, many of which have been donated. A metal stand in a corner displays a dozen different CDs –– all of them recorded by students in a wide variety of genres.
“It’s neat that we have this here at Southwest because there are so many different cultures,” Bellomy said. “You meet somebody from everywhere going here. It’s reflected a lot in the music that we have recorded.”