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Sadness, hope at old school’s last day of classes

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Cathy Dobson

The final day of classes at the much beloved former SCITS building was a bittersweet one.

Students and staff spoke with nostalgia about the passing of Sarnia’s oldest high school. But there was optimism as well about moving to the newly renovated Great Lakes Secondary on Murphy Road in September.

“It’s sad. We’re going to miss this building as well as this neighbourhood,” said Helen Crick, who has taught history at 275 Wellington St. for 17 years.

Last day of class at Great Lakes Secondary School

“There’s a magic here that you can’t replace. A lot of the community still bleeds (Bomber) blue. But I know we’ll make new magic at the new location.”

In 2016, Lambton Kent District School Board trustees made the controversial decision to close SCITS after 97 years, arguing the two-storey building needed substantial upgrades, and that declining enrolment required either SCITS or St. Clair Secondary on Murphy Road to shut down. Projected annual savings are estimated at $1.1 million.

In preparation for the move, the 58-year-old St. Clair building is undergoing a $25-million redevelopment that includes a new auditorium.

Construction has been slower than predicted and the consolidated student bodies have waited an extra year to make the switch.

A June 19 flag lowering on the front lawn marked the last day of classes at the SCITS building.

About 50 students, alumni and teachers gathered as Grade 10 history buff Michael Smith took down the Canadian flag, student Nicole Vautour read a tribute to SCITS, and teacher Caleb Courtney played the trumpet.

“It’s emotional,” said Smith, 16. “This school holds so much importance to the community.  I want to stay here but it’s time for change.”

Smith said he’s lucky to split his high school years at two locations.

“I’m getting the best of both worlds,” he said. “The new facility will have better stuff.”

Last day of class at Great Lakes Secondary School

Principal Paul Wiersma paid tribute to the historic building, noting more than 80,000 students have called it home since it opened in 1922 with a “quite spectacular” auditorium and swimming pool.

“We’ve been privileged to use this facility for the last three years as Great Lakes, and we’ve worked hard to build this school community with a new Wolfpack identity,” he said.

During its first 30 years, SCITS was Sarnia’s only high school and virtually everyone in the community had some association with it, Wiersma added.

“This is a hard day,” said special ed teacher Rita Rajput at the flag lowering. “This building is like home and I’m going to miss it. It’s a special place.

“But the people are even more special,” Rajput said.  “And they are moving over to the other building.”

About 814 students will start classes in September at the new location. That could grow to 1,000 in five years because of the school’s popular theatre program and new families moving into the area, said Brian McKay, the board’s superintendent of business.

Weather has played a big part in construction delays, said McKay. “If this rain would stop we could get the parking lot paved.”

The contractor has guaranteed the original building and refurbished classrooms will be ready, but work on the addition will continue into late fall.

Trustees are to vote on declaring the SCITS building surplus in September, said McKay.

If the municipality, other school boards, the province and First Nations aren’t interested, it will be placed on the open market.

“We hope there will be interest and it will be reused. We know the community doesn’t want to see it mothballed and neither do we,” McKay said.

Following flag-lowering teacher Helen Crick reflected on the future.

“Every year since I started teaching here I’ve spent the first day of school taking my history classes through and around this building.” Together they admired architectural features and discussed heritage, she said.

There will be no tour for Crick’s history class this September.

“I’m sure all I’m going to be doing is figuring out where everything is packed,” she said.

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