“You only get a chance to build a new school every 100 years.”
When I moved to Essex County to take a teaching job, one of the first things that I wanted to learn was what schools were in our Athletic Association. A colleague took me through the list but was careful to point out that General Amherst High School was our mortal enemy. I wasn’t surprised; every school has rivalries. As I found out though, it wasn’t sports related. The school I was hired at was new and to accommodate all the students, my school and General Amherst had to have “shifts” at the General Amherst building. That led to all kinds of issues including everything that was broken was the result of our school. Or so the story went; I didn’t live through it!
That was a long time ago. General Amherst was an older school then and so when you move to today, it’s indeed a great deal older. Student population has declined for a number of reasons and the school district was apparently faced with reduced funding from the Ministry of Education.
There is another public school in Amherstburg, Western Secondary School. Western offers a number of programs for students including Diploma and Certificate tracks. When I was on the OSSTF Collective Bargaining Committee, both our meetings and the annual meetings were held at Western. A major school event, the Pumpkinfest attracts hundreds of people every year. During my attendance at all of these events, you’re always welcomed by staff and student and treated like true guests.
Earlier this week, (I have a standing Twitter search for “Amherstburg”) the local newspaper announced that a decision for the location of a new secondary school would be shared after an in-session session by the town council. We knew it was coming and my wife and I had our own guesses as to where the location would be. Neither of us were surprised when it was announced that it would be in Centennial Park. The remaining question was just where it would be in the park. We both had our predictions.
From overhead, you can see that the current General Amherst is pretty much locked by streets. There is a town park south of the school. It’s not uncommon to see physical education classes in the community park or to see students head off and jog along the river.
Western Secondary School, on the other hand, is on a large beautiful track of land, bounded only by a couple of country roads.
As a result, the two school populations will be merged to form a new school in a part of Centennial Park. It was the part of the park that was in question.
On the south side of the park, you’ll see four baseball diamonds and if you look, you’ll see an outdoor swimming pool, skateboard park, and a number of trees. In the middle, you’ll see a track, tennis courts, and the old arena. In the north, you’ll find Amherstburg Community Services, and Renaud Hill. The hill is really important since Essex County is so flat. Where would we go sledding without our local hill?
Across Richmond Street, is a closed Catholic elementary school. My speculation was that the town would close that part of Richmond Street, level the elementary school and use the site for the construction. It appears that I’m wrong. While we still don’t know exactly where the school will be built and what street address it will have, the mayor responded indicating that the Community Services building would be unaffected. That pretty much shoots down my theory.
It’s going to be a good location with a bigger footprint than the current General Amherst location. It will be a little longer walk to get downtown but not a huge walk. It will be closer to the subdivisions built as the town expanded.
There’s the background; now back to the original quote. It came from a superintendent of mine who was instrumental in the design of another school. According to the Wikipedia, the General Amherst school was built in 1922. (or at least the first part; we all know that additions get added to buildings). It’s a beautiful building showing the state of design at that time. Doing a little mathematics, and if the new school opens in 2020 as predicted, the original building will be 98 years old. It doesn’t get much closer than that to one hundred.
But, picture the designer of the school in 1922. Could this company have forseen:
- a town that grew with various subdivisions
- full-funding of education in the province that would see the development of four publicly funded school districts
- the development of a four year program for graduation
- facility design that includes technical programs for woodworking, electrical, auto mechanics, design, CNC milling, 3D printing, robotics, hairdressing, and more
- the need for as much electricity as you need to make the day go by (in many cases, the electrical outlet was beside the sink)
- the need for air conditioning in the hot days of June, opening the possibility of summer user
- all of the various sporting teams and clubs that require special facilities
- the need for busing to bring students to school from a distance
- a curriculum that is periodically reviewed and revised to remain current
- the need to be able to walk or otherwise travel to co-operative education placements
- the Internet (nothing more needs to be said)
- the need for computer/device networking in every location part of the school
- progressive educators that use computers and other technologies for just about every part of the curriculum and administrative work
- the realty that you could use solar resources to generate your own electricity
- and so much more
An article that covers the announcement appears here and it’s the quote from Trustee Ron LeClair “I can’t wait to get a shovel in the ground,” that made me smile. I can’t help but wonder if the local politicians were that enthusiastic in 1922! Did they think that their efforts would stand the test of time and still be serving students 98 years later?
I’d be guessing but I’d probably think that they were pretty positive that they were building a state of the art school at the time. Why wouldn’t it last forever?
Today, we see news releases for “High Tech Highs” or “Schools of the Future”. I think we all know that it’s advertising. We live in times of so much quick and substantial change. Even in our short time here in the big timeline of schools, we can point out how radically things have changed. I can remember a few short years ago when people were happy to have three or four ethernet drops in their classroom. Today, it’s unthinkable.
I go by the existing school(s) almost daily and admire the design and thought that went into both. They speak volumes to the community, the priorities, and the state of the art for design at the time. Will we ever see a new school designed with such a facade again in our lifetimes?
I think we all wish them the best in the design of the new building. The challenge is clear though. Is their planning going to be good enough to build a structure that’s good for the next 98 years?
The answer will lie in response to this question – how do you future-proof a school building?
Feel free to share your ideas below.