It has honed the skills of world-class athletes and internationally renowned artists, helped to shape the minds of business leaders and prominent national figures, it has been a place the community turns to in times of celebration and of sorrow. And after being a fixture in Oak Bay for the better part of a century, welcoming upwards of 30,000 students through its doors, the familiar facade of Oak Bay High will be relegated to the history books.
Construction continues on the new Oak Bay High slated to usher in its first students next September. And as work wraps up on the $50 million state-of-the-art school this summer, the original 1929 school building and later additions will be torn down, making way for the school’s new sports fields.
“I think it’s going to be shockingly different for a couple of reasons. First of all, education itself has changed its face so dramatically but schools haven’t been able to change their faces,” said principal Dave Thomson, who has been at Oak Bay High for all but four years since 1992.
The face of Oak Bay High has changed a few times since it moved to its current site in 1929 from its previous location in what is now the Uplands Golf Course, with major additions tacked on in the 1950s and ’60s, but it still seemed like a history class every time students walked through the front door.
“You walk through the front door of this school and it’s no different than when you walked in the front door in 1970,” said Thomson. “The building that we’re in, as much as we all love it – and we do – has so many weaknesses that don’t allow us to be the kinds of educators and produce the kinds of students we should be producing.”
The new school will eliminate the need for duplication that is now found in the separate buildings of the school, and the classrooms themselves will be built in pods of three with a flexible wall that will allow for the creation of a larger space.
“If you take into account both buildings, [the new school] is probably a little bit smaller in terms of square footage. But the reality is it’s much better organized and efficient. There’s not much efficiency when you have to go back and forth, when you have to have two separate offices and two separate computer systems and telephone systems,” said vice-principal Garrett Brisdon, who has been actively involved in the construction process.
“Change orders are much more part of the process now,” said Thomson. “We’re making decisions every day with the architects on what the building’s going to look like. This morning we were talking to a technology teacher about the blank canvas we have in one technology space.”
And it won’t just be the look of the building that’s changing, with the new school opening up an opportunity for a more diverse curriculum. School officials are looking at potential new courses in engineering, robotics, electronics and marine biology. Oak Bay students will welcome a group of students from the Netherlands in the spring to study freshwater biology and work to redesign Bowker Creek. The local students will then head to Holland in the fall.
Discussions on replacing the school began two decades ago when it was learned the building didn’t meet seismic codes. Construction started in the summer of 2013 and the school has been a hive of activity for the past 18 months. But the disruption of going to school in a construction zone is offset by the educational value it provides students.
“My physics teachers and engineering teachers and technology teachers, for them this is a big-boy sandbox. Everything is happening and you’re watching it happen,” said Thomson.
And when the wrecking ball comes, memories won’t be the only things that survive from the original building.
“Sympathetic deconstruction is the phrase they use now, because there’s things they want to save. The tear down will be done with care to preserve some things they want to save,” said Thomson.
The huge fir timbers from the old gym will become benches in the new fitness facility and even the old tree that grew outside Thomson’s office will be used to construct a large social staircase in the new school.
There’s frustration that comes from being housed in a building from another technological era, one that has been forced to change its form with each new addition
“We have to unplug our fax machine if we want to run our coffee machine. There are things the building doesn’t have the capacity to handle,” said Thomson.
Brisdon points to hallways that lead to a stairway going up and then another set of stairs going down. He says he still has to hunt for light switches, as they’re not found in the natural places because conduit has had to be run on the outside of walls. With that, the lights begin to flicker and then momentarily shut off.
“I think somebody plugged in the coffee machine,” Brisdon says with a chuckle
But despite the twisting corridors and and flickering lights, both men will have will have mixed reactions when they walk out of the old school for the final time.
“I’ve been here in the middle of the night, and it speaks to you. I love the place, it has history like crazy,” said Thomson, adding the 1929 “stick building” that houses his office is what he will miss the most.
“We have a cafeteria with a maple hardwood floor, we have a math class with maple floors, stuff that you can’t even imagine. It’s stuff we’ve been comfortable with for a long, long time.”