BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — 'S cool to be in school when the teacher rocks.

Literally . as he's doing now . at your side . thumping out the bass to Tom Petty's "Runnin' Down a Dream."

So what if you weren't even born when the song was a radio anthem in the summer of '89?

The rock of ages never grows old.

"It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down ...

"I had the radio on, I was drivin' ... "

Laying down "Dream's" backbeat is 9-year-old drummer Joseph Dubravec; letting fly with the Petty-worthy licks is 10-year-old guitarist Chris Merica.

Tom would be proud.

Maybe even envious: Did he sound this good at 9? Or even 10?

The teacher at Joe and Chris' side, aka "Mr. Ed," grins big. Then bigger.

Meanwhile, he fills in the blanks with some steady bass and seasoned vocal.

Less-polished results have been heard at venues packing cover charges.

"Workin' on a mystery, goin' wherever it leads ...

"Runnin' down a dream ... "

As the man behind an array of rock-prone music projects over the past decade or more, "Mr. Ed" Anderson knows a thing or two about runnin' down dreams — from long-gone bands like Brother Jed, to the recent climax of Backyard Tire Fire, to the currently percolating Anders Edison and Magic Box.

The latest dream finds Anderson now the headmaster of Bloomington Rock School, downstate Illinois' first full-time academy devoted to the art of amperage, and more.

Housed in a downtown storefront, the school fits like a guitar case: exposed brick walls to absorb the tidal waves of sound ("sometimes they're almost too loud for me," deadpans Ed), and high ceilings and polished wood floors to give it that rarefied air of academia.

"It's been a real fun process," says Anderson, who placed Backyard Tire Fire on what he calls "an indefinite hiatus" late last year — partly to focus on the school, partly because life was moving on for the maturing band, including brother Matt's impending nuptials.

"It's one of those things that's at a good place now," he adds. "I get to be at the school two to three days a week, and then I still get to play three to four nights a week."

Assisting Ed are his wife, Kim, who serves as the operations manager, and old crony Tony SanFilippo, owner-operator of Bloomington's Oxide Lounge Recording and Bloomington Rock School's percussion guru. The curriculum is comprised of two full courses designed for kids 10 to 17, "Introduction to Rock" and "Rock Performance."

The latter course culminates in a public performance at a major Twin Cities venue as The Rock School Band: like tonight's Castle Theatre gig, in which the band opens for Farm A Geddon and Anders Edison.

Also offered at the school are private lessons on guitar, bass and drums, and songwriting seminars, all of which are open to budding musicians of any age.

Currently, the Rock School's demographics range from "7 to 50s," says Anderson, who confesses, "at first I didn't think I'd be teaching as much — I hadn't before — but I discovered I could do it and I liked it."

On a recent Thursday night, school is in full session, with the smaller "Introduction to Rock" class kicking off the evening in laid-back but highly productive style.

In short order, a trio comprised of Ed, Chris and Joe plow through a classic rock regimen including the Stones' "Miss You," the aforementioned Petty anthem, Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride," Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy" and — of course — a little Backyard Tire Fire for good measure ("The Places We Lived").

There are occasional timeouts for Mr. Ed to offer suggestions ("Play it straight, the way you were doing it last week," ''Make it a little dirtier") and fielding responses (Joe: "That's a lot harder than I thought. .").

Chris and Joe — not acquainted before the class began — now work in tandem like a preteen Richards-Jagger.

"I've had to practice a lot — I'd never taken lessons before," says Joe. "I've improved more than 110 percent."

Joe's dad Paul had his reservations about the school in the early going. "I was apprehensive over the stereotypical rock thing — that they'd be using heavy metal to corrupt my child."

Instead, the opposite has proved true: "The practical learning has really worked, and he really gets into that."

"If I had to put it into a single sentence," says Joe, "it would be that . Ed is a very LIVELY person to have as a teacher.

Chris: "And he's a really good guitar player . and pretty cool."

Later in the evening, it's time for the slightly older "Rock Performance" crew to move in — five young men ready, as the KISS anthem they'll soon perform goes, to Rock & Roll All Night.

They are Nick Gizzi, 14, Normal, guitar; Eric Burns, 18, Bloomington, guitar/vocals; Nick Saathoff, 12, Hudson, drums/vocals; Ricky Williams, 16, Bloomington, bass; and Will Bauer, 13, Bloomington, guitar/vocals.

The boys are down to the rehearsal wire for tonight's big Castle Theatre show.

Teacher: "We really need to work on the beginnings and the endings of our tunes." ''Make good eye contact to help communicate the songs." ''Let's keep rolling like we're doing it for real." "OK, give me a big 'Hey'!

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"HEY!!"

The Bloomington Rock School is on a definite roll.

"You know," says Anderson between classes, "playing with these guys brings it back to where I was when I started playing — and why it was I started playing in the first place. I love it."

Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com