Then and Now: South Park School - part 2
Above: South Park School. Photo by Robert Hawkes
Then and Now
by Ted Ross
In September 1974 a new family school opened in the quarters of Beacon Hill School, a few blocks south of South Park on Douglas Street. This new concept in a school with complete family involvement opened with 108 students from Kindergarten to Grade Three with no catchment area.
Parents from anywhere in the school district were free to apply to have their children enrolled. They only needed to agree to the school's philosophy - a school where children, parents and teachers will relate, learn and grow together. Further they would have to participate in the life of the school by attending parent-education meetings, working on committees, helping out in classrooms as needed, and supporting or contributing to the educational program.
The school opened with Pam Senese as principal. She had been chosen by a committee of parents and district administrators. With plans to add a grade a year to the school, it was obvious that the Beacon Hill site would soon be unable to handle the load.
With Dave Allan's community school gone from South Park, the decision was made to move the family school to that building. In late November, 1974, the family school walked to their new accommodations. South Park Family School was launched.
First principal Pam Senese recalled in her memoir, “South Park Family School was an adventure in creating an educational opportunity within the public school system and in developing a community which valued open-hearted and respectful relationships and honored diversity among all participants: parents, teachers, administration, and custodial and clerical staff. All were called by their first names. Everyone had something to contribute.”
From 1982-1986 Barb Stansbury was principal. Following her was Trevor Calkins. He recalls, in his memoir, “My eyes were opened to integration, multi-aged classes and holistic methods. South Park changed my professional and personal life.”
One thing Calkins was aware of was that the South Park School building was old. At the time he became principal it was 92. A beautiful structure at the outset, it had been allowed to age and deteriorate over the years. He recalls, “During the cold weather, the staff and the students wore their coats and gloves all day and seldom complained. The furnace belted out smoke but little heat.” A grievance was filed with the schools superintendent which led to the involvement of the Workers' Compensation Board. They ordered the school board to fix the furnace.
Keith Hawkins, P Eng, Plant Manager for Greater Victoria School District, in an article in the Times-Colonist remembers, “Children were red-eyed, teachers were wearing their coats to teach class and there was an oily coal-tar smell which permeated the whole school.
Nick Fenger was retained to design an electric radiant panel heating system. The heat control of the school was eventually made through solid-state relays to a microcomputer - quite a change from coal and wood.”
More than replacement of the heating system, South Park School was to get a complete renovation. Hawkins recalls, “The exterior of the school was not to be denied and the school district staff were enlisted to restore the old brick to its original splendor. Many of the decorative mouldings had to be rebuilt and fortunately, the B.C. Heritage Trust was always there to help us and give us sound advice.”
Work on the interior commenced in June 1987. Drawings of the proposed work had been prepared by the firm of Wade Williams and their draftsman George Redzek. Hawkins relates, “The cooperation of the city officials, the planning department, the fire department and many others was a lesson in teamwork which I will always remember.
“The Ministry of Education allowed us to use our own staff of skilled tradesmen under the foreman, John Lutter. For 12 weeks, the team gave up holidays and pitched in to rip everything apart and put it all back together in time for school opening. There were many surprises, but the staff never failed to rise to every occasion. The end result made it all worthwhile. Everyone came out a winner.”
The South Park Annex, built in 1915 to offer industrial education and home economics, suffered the ravages of aging also. In the 1950s shops and home economics courses were moved to the junior and senior high schools. South Park no longer offered those classes in the annex. The building was used for various activities over the next few years.
From 1971-1974, in the period of the community school under Dave Allan, a darkroom for photography and an art room for student use were established in the annex. In 1974, however, the building was condemned for further use. It then sat empty and unmaintained for the next 20 years.
In 1990 James Bay Community School Society wrote to the School Board to “...strongly support the retention and community use ... of the annex of South Park School.” In 1991 the Heritage Building Foundation and the Hallmark Society began discussions with the Greater Victoria School Board regarding restoration of the building.
Restoration work began in 1993. When finished, the Heritage Society of BC and the Hallmark Society had their offices on the first floor of the annex. There was a community auditorium on the upper level. Work was complete by 1995. These offices required a quiet working environment. As a result the school could not have activities upstairs which would disturb the tenants downstairs. This limited teaching use of the annex.
In 2004 the School Board decided to no longer rent out the first floor. South Park Family School was granted major use of the annex. School District archives were stored in a proper climate-controlled room in the basement. A meeting hall was available for rentals. There was storage space in the building for use by the school.
There was another bump on South Park School's road to the future. In 2003 the latest seismic report on South Park became public. It showed that “the school poses a significant risk to its occupants in the event of even a moderate earthquake.”
The headline for the Times-Colonist, April 8, 2003, proclaimed, School's seismic safety rattles parents. Some parents, although not many, took their children out of school. The School Board approached the Ministry of Education seeking more than $3 million to bring the building up to seismic standards.
After deliberation and consideration, the School Board voted on May 21 to proceed with the first phase of an upgrade to make the school safe in the event of an earthquake, at a cost of $1.39 million. Those funds had been provided by the Ministry of Education. The second phase of the project proceeded when Ministry funds became available, finishing the two-phase project.
The School Board chose Bradley Shuya as architect and awarded a contract to Pye Construction. Work began in the spring of 2004. An extremely busy summer, with crews working 16 hour days, saw the classrooms reinforced and refinished in heritage style by the beginning of classes in September. Efforts carried on in the gym until November. Finishing touches and repainting continued after school hours until January 2005.
In 2005, The Hallmark Society presented architect Bradley Shuya and The Board of Trustees of School District 61 with the President's Award, “for the creative use of technology which retained the original fabric of the historic South Park Elememtary School during a seismic upgrade.”
Deputy Provincial Premier, Minister of Finance and life-long James Bay resident, Carole James, has two entries in Memories Through the Decades. Ms. James was a student at South Park from 1968-1970. She relates, in her memoir, “When I was in South Park, I carried out my first political protest. Up until 1968 girls were never allowed to wear pants to school, even in snowy, cold weather. I talked to our principal, Mr. Orchard about my concerns, but he didn't want to change the rules. I made posters in my basement and, with the support of the other Grade 7 girls, walked out of school and went on strike. The boys joined us. A reporter from The Daily Colonist came and took our picture, and we made the news!” After the protest, Mr. Orchard relented and girls were allowed to wear pants on snowy days.
From 1986-1991 Ms. James was a parent involved in the South Park Family School. She recalls, “During the time I was a member of the parent body, parents were vocal about wanting to be actively involved in their children's lives. Families had rather progressive ideas, in general, although there was certainly a mix of backgrounds and beliefs. Support of each other was key for the success of the school. Relationships formed during this time...have become lifelong friendships.”
South Park Family School is a school based on a philosophy of cooperative parent participation. Learning through play, hands-on experiences and a focus on process over product are part of this philosophy.
South Park currently enrolls 192 students from kindergarten to Grade 5. Carmen Gauvreau is principal with Sarah Elford vice-principal and Sue Brennan administrative assistant.
Staff and parents are committed to a philosophy that develops the full potential of all pupils. Children with positive self-concepts are the most successful learners, so it is the goal to help the children build their self-esteem. Parent participation is integral to children's educational development. Letter grades are detrimental at the elementary school level so other forms of assessment and evaluation are used.
How fitting that one of the most progressive programs in modern education is housed in the oldest operating school west of Montreal. Now with the buildings restored, renovated and seismically sound, South Park Family School looks at decades into the future. Squeezed by apartments and condos on the north and west, the buildings stand historically proud at the corner of Michigan and Douglas with the field to the south across Michigan and Beacon Hill Park east across Douglas.
"Against the Current; The Story of Agnes Deans Cameron," Cathy Converse, 2018; "This Old House; Victoria's Heritage Neighbourhoods," Volume Two; James Bay, Victoria Heritage Foundation, 2008; Times-Colonist, June 16, 1984, "1894 school design ahead of its time," Geoffrey Castle; Times-Colonist, April 11, 2004, "Council okays school upgrade," Malcom Curtis; Greater Victoria School District, "South Park Family School," 2019; Times-Colonist, March 2, 1989, "South Park renewed: it was many labors of love," Keith Hawkins; Victoria City Archives, "908 Douglas Street South Park School," designated heritage building; Times-Colonist, April 8, 2003, "School's seismic safety rattles parents," Jeff Rud; Times-Colonist, April 30, 2003, "Seismic doubts likely to close school," Jeff Rud; Times-Colonist, May 21, 2003, "Funds found for South Park," Jennifer McGregor and Jeff Rudd; "South Park School; Memories Through the Decades," Debbie Marchand and Linda Picciotto, 2007.
Author's note: The final entry in my bibliography, "South Park School, Memories Through the Decades," was critical to the preparation of this article. When shown this book at the City Archives, I knew I needed a copy to complete my work. Luckily, there is a copy to borrow from Victoria Public Library. Interestlngly enough, when I approached librarian Amanda Butler at James Bay branch to order the book she said, "I went to that school and loved it. I have an article in the book!" And she does, with dozens of other memoirs scattered throughout the volume. If you really want to know the history of South Park School, read this book!