No dull moments for St. Regis music teacher as he commutes to Idaho job

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DEREK LARSON (Photo courtesy of Derek and Shelly Larson)

Have trumpet will travel; or tuba, or trombone, or piano, or many of the other instruments music teacher Derek Larson can play.

However, a piano won’t fit into Larson’s Chevy Cruze that he drives back and forth over Lookout Pass.

How far does he travel? 107 miles round-trip to teach in Mullan, Idaho and then back to school in St. Regis before commuting home to Superior for the day. His days are fueled by gasoline, lots of coffee, and Beethoven as he makes the trek between the schools.

“The commute is really pretty, I love to drive and there’s hardly any traffic,” Larson said.

At 6 a.m. Larson’s alarm sounds and he’s out the door and on the road by 7. He needs the extra time to get some prep work done in the mornings for his first class of the day at Mullan school.

Band for students in grades seventh through 12 begins at 8 a.m. Then it’s alternating between bands for grades 3-4 or 5-6 grade.

As the bell for third period rings Larson heads for his car and uses his prep period for his commute back to St. Regis School in Montana, which takes him about 45 minutes most days.

The Mullan School has an understanding that the commute has a potential for hiccups. “I’ve been told, if the roads are bad, don’t come. Don’t risk it, we’ll just get you a sub.”

The most stirring drives so far have included a conflict with a bouncing iceberg that popped up by a passing vehicle that cost Larson a headlight, and an accident that shut down the pass during an early September snowstorm.

The closure required Larson to employ his local back road knowledge to skirt around the impasse and make it to school on time in St. Regis.

Larson’s first class of the day in St. Regis tolls at 11:48 a.m., so while the fifth-sixth-grade band warm up their instruments he has just enough time to eat his warmed up paper plate lunch from the cafeteria.

With the cadence of a fuller schedule Larson can’t complain.

“There is nothing negative about the arrangement, I’m just busier. My day is not nearly as boring and I feel I’m having a greater impact,” Larson said.

After the 2018-2019 school year ended Mullan’s music teacher decided it was time to resign. The district posted the position online and checked with fellow principals throughout northern Idaho, but prospects were bleak for finding a replacement.

That’s when Don Kotschevar, Principal at Mullan High School started orchestrating how it could work to share a music teacher with St. Regis School, whom they also had a newly founded football co-op with.

“Since we have a great relationship with St. Regis due to our co-op in football I asked Mr. Ball their Principal if he knew of anyone,” Kotschevar quipped. “I even joked with him about how he had a great music teacher but promised him I wouldn’t try to steal him.”

For two years now St. Regis high school and Mullan High School have joined for varsity football. During the first season as a combined Tiger gridiron, Larson and his St. Regis band members traveled to Mullan twice to partake in pep band with the Mullan music students.

Larson said the two bands meshed well.

“We had a good connection with the other kids in Mullan,” he said.

St. Regis School Principal Shaun Ball’s initial reaction of the proposal to share Mr. Larson was blunt.

“At first I was hesitant. Derek is a great teacher and mentor for many students and staff. I was worried that not having him for half the day would cause a lot of issues.”

But Ball quickly learned how the compromise could be a blessing to both schools and to Larson as well.

Kotschevar also agreed, saying “Small rural schools struggle financially and when we find resources that we can share it’s a huge win for everyone.”

Mullan and St. Regis split Larson’s salary and benefits, which profits both schools financially.

Ball believes the teaching arrangement is a good move for both districts, “They [Mullan] were willing to work around our schedule. This move, in addition to the football co-op, has helped us grow closer with the students and community of Mullan. Idaho pays better, so Larson also saw a little jump in his paycheck. Overall it’s a win-win for both schools.”

Being an interstate teacher means his contract for each school is a bit unusual.

“I work five-eights time for St. Regis, which is also a very hard time signature,” Larson bantered, “and three-eights time for Mullan.”

This equals three periods for Mullan and five for St. Regis.

Larson has taught nine years in St. Regis. Holding several masters degrees; he’s considered an expensive teacher for the St. Regis school district.

When Larson was originally hired on, a full time position was created for him by monitoring several class periods where students did online work. Leaving Larson with only part of his school day instructing music and sharing his passion.

“Those classes weren’t why I became a teacher,” Larson said.

Mullan’s music department is where St. Regis was when he first started, only performing a Christmas concert and a spring concert. But now students are opting for band classes over others Kotschevar exclaimed, “Derek is a kid magnet as soon as he started teaching in Mullan some students dropped their other elective classes to get into his class!”

As the school year marches on into the holiday season, Larson now contends with snowy roadways, and Principal Ball conveys St. Regis School has adjusted to the change, “I think it’s going well. However, I miss hearing his jolly laugh in the mornings, when he is over in Mullan.”

And in the spirit of jolly music, Larson will be conducting his first Christmas Concert in Mullan at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18 (remember it’s in Pacific time zone). At 2:30 p.m. in the afternoon of Dec. 18, St. Regis will host its Pre-K through 6 grade winter concert. St. Regis will hold his 7-12 winter concert at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12.

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