Ceremony kicks off construction of new Huntsville School

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Students including Colin Friesen, Keith Reimer, Elisa Froese, Angelina Thiessen, Jonathan Harder and Christina Penner join dignitaries in groundbreaking for a new Huntsville School.

IRON SPRINGS – The celebration kicked off construction of the long-awaited replacement for Huntsville School, but the occasion held more substance than that alone.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the $11-million project signifies a new chapter for the kindergarten to Grade 12 school in Iron Springs, said Dave Driscoll, Superintendent of Palliser Regional Schools.

“I think it’s a community that has shown its versatility in reaching the needs of the students. But I think this goes beyond that,” he said. “They will soon have a building that will accommodate them into the future and the new programming we are looking at, which includes senior high over the next few years.”

Enrolment at Huntsville School, originally built in 1941 with the last improvements coming a half-dozen years ago, sits at just over 170 students. About 95 per cent of the student population consists of Low German-speaking Mennonite (LGM) students.

Construction of the new school, with a capacity of 240, should wrap up in the summer of 2020.  Staff and students expected to ring in a new school year with a new building featuring the latest innovations while retaining that rural feel in its design and plenty of wood accents.

A high water table and resulting drainage problems were among the contributing factors in Palliser originally seeking improvements to the school. Plans were later updated to a major modernization before a replacement school was approved in 2017.

While it’s been some time since that announcement, Principal Chris Spanos said preliminary service work at the site under the guidance of contractor Lear Construction began earlier this month and reignited that earlier excitement.

“It’s been neat to see on a daily basis the landscape of the field changing and the machinery at work and students often spending their recess time standing along the safety fences watching the equipment. . . ,” he said. “It certainly has generated quite a buzz.”

A new school building also reaffirms their efforts to showcase for the community the value of education and the opportunities it can provide, said Spanos.

After putting junior high programming in place in 2005, Huntsville added high school to the mix this year and saw an encouraging enrolment of 18 students. He hopes the level of engagement with the local community during the planning and design process for the new school will generate even further interest in the years to come.

Driscoll said it’s also comforting to see that the commitment to rural education hasn’t changed.

“We have been very fortunate in rural Alberta that our programs continue to grow and we are supported by the ministries of education and infrastructure,” he said.

Design input was received from staff and community back when modernization of the building was the goal. It was revived further this past school year including a chance for staff to take a virtual tour of the proposed design by FWBA Architects.

The new school will feature plenty of natural lighting, flexible learning spaces, a solar power element and a large gathering space at the entrance, opening up to the gym and learning commons.

Some of the older students, said Spanos, are excited about the prospect of a larger gym and a kitchen to be used for Career and Technology Studies classes. The staff, meanwhile, are looking forward to many  things including learning spaces which will encourage further collaboration between not only staff, but also students.

Huntsville School is thankful for a very involved parent group, said Spanos, which provides hot lunches and hosts such events as a Christmas dinner. Space for a commercial kitchen in the new school should further enhance the school’s parent and community partnership.

Despite the anticipation of a brand new building, don’t assume there will be a lack of tears when the last student exits the old one.  It has served the community well for almost eight decades, he said, and former students still drop in to share their memories from time-to-time.

“It’s been a great place to come and learn and gather and celebrate,” said the principal, adding there’s been talk with the architects of retaining some elements of the existing school in its replacement. “There is that sentimental attachment piece for many, that’s for sure.”

Iron Springs is about 50 kilometres northwest of Lethbridge.