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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 2, October 2007

A school is gone—but not forgotten

By Steve Fairbairn

Well, it wasn’t really a school—anymore. It was a building that once was a school.

"The school" was closed in 2002 but that is a different story.

The school in question—the building that once was a school--was still called Elkford Elementary School. It was located in a small rural BC community at the end of Highway 43 in the Southeast Kootenay region of the province.

Elkford exists because of coal mining. The process that became "fording coal" began in the late 1960s, with Elkford being incorporated as a community in 1971.

Elkford Elementary School opened soon after that as a collection of four portables, without even a gymnasium. As the years went by it grew and grew and grew–the addition of more portables, foundations, permanent classrooms, and a gymnasium as the school’s growth paralleled that of the community.

At one time there were two classes of each grade. There was a music program, special education program, a full-time teacher-librarian, a principal, a vice-principal, and there was a very active and supportive parent community.

Teachers moved into the community and stayed. Many stayed after they entered their retirement years.

As the community grew, a secondary school and another elementary school (Rocky Mountain) were built uptown.

By the early 1990s all three schools were full—full to bursting.

As time passed, the number of children in town began to drop--the mine was no longer hiring and families were moving past the child-bearing years. At the turn of the century, the provincial funding formula was changed. The school district no longer found it economically viable to keep all of its schools open.

Promises of extra support and specialist positions in the remaining elementary school were made, if the community agreed to peacefully surrender one school to closure.

Elkford Elementary School was closed in June of 2002.

The school sat vacant and boarded up—lonely and unloved by everyone except the 1,500 or so people who were former students of the school, their parents, the teachers who once taught there, and the many town residents who remembered the pride that came with the first school in Elkford—a school they worked hard to get, and one they were proud to call their own.

To the school board the vacant building was a liability—one that had to be disposed of.

In the spring of 2007, the board got its wish. They came to an agreement with the municipality, and Elkford became the proud new owner of the building.

The plan was to make it into a community centre of some kind. A committee of interested townspeople was struck and they were in the process of looking at how the building could be used.

In the meantime, the vacant building had become a playground for teens and others who repeatedly broke in and rummaged through the dark and lonely halls. Rumours hinted that people who had come into town to find work were squatting in the building.

On August 11, 2007, at approximately 6:45 a.m. the end arrived. By the time the sun set that day, a fire had destroyed the school, leaving only the gymnasium.

No one was hurt, no one died. No child was displaced. No teacher lost any materials. The only thing that was lost that day was a little bit of Elkford.

I think it—the being of Elkford Elementary School knew. I think it knew that it would never be a safe, welcoming place for the children of Elkford again. I think it knew that it would never hear the peals of laughter of children at a recess break, the sound of hundreds of running feet at 3:10 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, or the screams of excitement in the gymnasium as children learned new skills, or watched puppet shows and skits.

I think it knew, and chose to end its existence without shame.

Elkford Elementary School may be gone, but it will never be forgotten—it will live on in the memories of those who loved it.

Steve Fairbairn is president of the Fernie District Teachers’ Association and a teacher who lives and works in Elkford.

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