Sioux North High School opening March 18
Tim Brody - Editor
On March 18, a dream will be realized in Sioux Lookout that had less than a one per cent chance of coming true.
Last week, at Sioux North High School, currently operating out of the former Queen Elizabeth District High School building, before a school-wide assembly, Keewatin-Patricia District School Board Director of Education Sean Monteith officially announced that on the students’ first day back from the March Break, they would move into their new school building.
The atmosphere in the gymnasium for this announcement was nothing short of electric.
The 80,000 square foot building is designed to accommodate an occupancy of 517 pupils.
“So we would have approximately 20 classrooms of a traditional classroom sense, but then you’ve got the shops, your manufacturing, automotive, construction, you’ve got your traditional family studies which would be your life skills type programming, where you’ll see things like washers, dryers, fridges. You have a resource room, otherwise known as special education, these are all learning areas, you’ve got your science labs, the library is beautiful, that all factors into what we would call a learning footprint… we have some unique space here too for cultural purposes. Certainly I think it’s important to recognize the unique partnership that we have with Lac Seul First Nation. Chief Maud and Council were here today (March 7) with Bob Nault (Kenora MP)… it’s not just our school if we’re to be successful, it has to be a school that belongs to Lac Seul, a school that belongs to Sioux Lookout, a school that belongs to the north,” Monteith shared.
In fact, it is this unique geography the school’s student body is made up of which is reflected in the new name of the school, Sioux North High School.
“I’m aware that changing the name of Queen Elizabeth District High School to Sioux North High School may not have sat well with some people,” Monteith said. “I can tell you it sat well with a lot of people. What I would just remind people is that the name of Sioux North was not derived, or created, by a bunch of office-type bureaucrats in some back room. It was created through a very intensive, and I would say, respectful process. And ultimately, the name came from two students that worked together to a compromise, and that name, Sioux North High School, was basically the genesis from one Indigenous student from Lac Seul First Nation and one non-Indigenous student from Sioux Lookout.”
Something that becomes quite evident while walking through the building’s hallways and visiting it’s many learning environments, is the emphasis which has been put on natural lighting.
Commenting on that, and the building in general, Monteith shared, “A couple things about the design. First off, I think it’s fair to acknowledge that while we went through an extensive consultation process with staff who would work in the building, students for sure, community members, lots and lots of folks that were involved, I don’t think there is a single person who gave their input that would say they are getting everything they wanted. You just can’t when you involve hundreds of people in a process, but I think the general themes of the school were honoured, and that is lots of natural light. We know that natural light is good for people in general. We know that natural light is good for people in northern Ontario in the wintertime, and it’s optimal for learning and working, so the inclusion of lots of natural light was intentional.
“The design is in some ways traditional, you’ve got your traditional type classrooms in the sense of the layout, but what you don’t see is the old fashioned blackboards, old fashioned desks where kids put books underneath, we’re talking about a 21st century digital learning age. You see lots of technology, lots of whiteboards with video projectors, and these are meant to be really state of the art teaching tools and also learning tools. Following the best research that we have around how kids learn and what are the optimal conditions for learning… There is no question that Sioux North High School is the most state of the art, modern school and facility that we have in the entire district.”
Monteith added Sioux North High School is the largest construction capital project the school board has ever undertaken, coming in at just in excess of $30 million.
Monteith said students and staff at Sioux North High School deserve the best.
Students from Sioux Lookout are already joined by students from across Nishnawbe Aski Nation. Both school buildings, the old and the new, lie upon the traditional territory of Lac Seul First Nation, which has the largest student population attending the school from any single First Nation.
In fact, the school is already at capacity even before it opens and enrollment at the school is expected to keep increasing.
“The school is designed to be enhanced or added on to, should we require it. I would say that there will likely be a director of education of the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board, down the road in 10 years, who will be having another discussion, and that discussion will be how do we accommodate more students at Sioux North High School, because we simply are at capacity; which we’re at now already. We knew that. It was built into the planning, and I think history will judge us for being prudent on that part,” Monteith explained.
“Regarding enrollment, most communities in northern Ontario are not in an enrollment or population increase. Sioux Lookout is a very unique anomaly. There are reasons for it, but when you look at a single high school in a community as a bit of a microcosm of the community, it should tell you something. Sioux North High School is increasing. We expect that trajectory to increase. We know that the Indigenous student population of Sioux Lookout is the majority and if our experience in the last six years, the trajectory of enrollment is to indicate anything, we should be prepared to accommodate more increased enrollment. We’re not looking to put portables on site at this location, yet. But if we get down the road, as an interim remedy, we may have to do that. Right now we’re moving from a high school that had a number of portables out back. We want to get away from the portables. We want the kids to be all in one building, and should we have to cross that bridge about what are we going to do with an overflow of enrollment, we’ll have to do that when the time comes.”
“I think that Northwestern Ontario presents some very unique challenges, and as a result, some very unique opportunities… Our challenge is unlike anything that I think most of the country has seen,” Monteith said. “I actually think that challenge puts Sioux Lookout and the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board on the front lines. So while a lot of people think that we’re doing innovative work, and we are, I would say that we’re kind of reacting to a reality that is around us. I think that we have to look at Sioux Lookout in a very unique way. This school should be a conversation between the federal level of government, provincial level of government and the local level of government and that includes both the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board as a reginal board of education, and the municipality. I don’t think you can talk about education in Sioux Lookout, with more and more kids, without talking about housing. Without talking about the required social considerations like mental health and addictions counselling. I think that all of these things need to be discussed together, and I think that they need to be discussed without being inhibited by jurisdictional bureaucracy and oversight. It was good to have Bob Nault here today because he’s got that federal perspective. I mean it’s interesting. He’s federal and this is a provincial building, but I’ve got kids in this building that are from the federal realm of jurisdiction, if you will. So, we need to all be sitting down together because there’s nothing like it anywhere in Ontario. Nothing.”
Students were told at the assembly last week they are to come to QEDHS on March 18, they will then head to their new school, class by class.
Parents and community members may wonder just how ready the new school is.
Monteith answered, “The condition is ready. The building is safe. Is the building going to be 100 per cent spot on? No. I think you’ll probably find a piece of countertop isn’t glued down somewhere, maybe a tile is missing, this building is 80,000 square feet, but the systems are operable, the heating, lighting, air ventilation, air exchange is optimal, the learning environment is going to be far improved.
“I would be naive to say it’s going to go without any kind of snag, but we wouldn’t be moving in if we weren’t ready.”
That being said, Monteith explained, “There’s still some finishing up work… there will be work going on at nighttime probably through to the summer. In terms of the cleaning and the furniture setup, we are bringing in all of our custodial staff from different parts of the board to come to Sioux Lookout over the next week to do what we call a heavy duty construction clean… and making sure everything is ready to go.”
A grand opening and community celebration for the new school building is scheduled for May 22.
“I think probably a district, probably provincial, and probably even some national level type folks will be here to join in. I think the community should feel welcome because it is a community school,” Monteith said.
When the new school building does open, it will mark the end of a journey which has been years in the making.
Monteith explained the desire for a new school probably goes back 20 years.
He recalled vividly submitting the application for the new school in November of 2013 and said he will never forget the phone call he received in early 2014 from the deputy minister of education that the application had been successful.
A question on many people’s minds is what will happen to the old QEDHS building when the new school opens.
Monteith shared, “There is discussion right now regarding part of the old building. There’s a reason why we built a new school. The majority of the existing school is simply past it’s best before date and needs replacement. We’re not going to retool a building that we are replacing and say that it’s fine now. There is a part of Sioux North that is functional, is good, structurally is good, and that’s the tech wing, gymnasium wing, fine arts and music wing. We do plan on repurposing that in partnership with a couple of our strategic partners. We are in discussions right now with a number of First Nation organizations, post-secondary institutions and education institutions, but what I won’t tell you is what we’re going to do with it specifically because the plan is a co-developed plan, and what I would say is whatever we do with that building, that part of the building will be absolutely consistent with everything else we’ve done, when it comes to education in Northern Ontario.”
Lac Seul First Nation Chief Derek Maud commented after touring the school with his education director and members of his Council, “I’m impressed. This whole design, what it’s going to be offering, not only to the students, but to the community, the cafetorium, I’m almost speechless.”
He added, “Having a little one who is going to be coming here in a couple years, I’m really excited for her.”
Kenora MP Bob Nault said of touring the new school, “Today I wanted to see the new school, Sioux North High School, because I’ve been hearing about it so much and I’d not had an opportunity to get down there and it’s getting close to being completed and the kids are going to come in. I’m sure I’ll have a chance to speak with different classes in the high school, but I wanted to see it because I have to admit, if you look at one, being impressed at what calibre of a school and infrastructure is being put in place, but all the modern technology and bells and whistles that this school has, it’s going to attract a lot of attention, and a lot of young people will be very keen to go here.
“From an economic point of view it will drive an agenda that (Sioux Lookout) could become more so a hub for education. This is a community that has a nice size and feel to it, so for young Aboriginal kids who are coming from the north, it’s a good fit.”