Mark Brett and Steve Kidd
Western News Staff
Until this year, Ashley Hiibner didn’t know what going to a real high school was like.
“I’m just excited to be graduating from a school and not a trailer park,” said Hiibner, referring to the collection of portable classrooms she has spent most of her high school career in.
On Sept. 12, 2011, the community of Oliver watched in shock as a major blaze engulfed the school that generations of its children had passed through.
The overnight fire destroyed a major portion of the South Okanagan Secondary School, which was nearing the end of a $30-million renovation that started in 2009.
Two years after the fire, the school held its grand reopening Thursday, marking the end of the renovations and fulfilling Hiibner’s dream of graduating from a real school.
The Grade 12 student at SOSS started Grade 8 in a portable, with renovations going on all around her, sometimes making it hard to hear teachers over the sound of drills and other tools.
“We were like, ‘Oh, and we thought it was bad before.’ It went from bad to worse,” said Hiibner. Now, she said, both the students and the community are proud to be part of the historic reopening of the school.
“There is that sense of community support, it’s awesome.”
The school had always had a special place in the Oliver community. More than just a high school, SOSS and its famed Frank Venables Auditorium were the heart of the community, fulfilling functions of both a school and a community centre.
Pat Hampson, then the mayor of Oliver, spent three hours at the scene of the fire that day in 2011, watching as flames lit up the early morning sky.
“This is a tragedy. It’s a huge loss for the community, both emotional and dollar-wise.
“The school has been there since 1948. Hundreds of people in this community walked through those hallways and the Frank Venables Auditorium was so dear to everybody’s heart,” said Hampson at the time.
“I imagine the town will come together as we usually do and work our way through it.”
The new school, it seems, won’t have much trouble filling that role again, for either the students or the community, which invested $400,000 in the reconstruction efforts.
“Oliver is a very tight community and the school is a very central part of this community and even more so now,” said principal Marcus Toneatto, adding that not everything was lost in the fire; many pictures were in the museum archives, for example.
“So when people come in now they are going to see a lot of the tradition from the old school.
“It’s a new building but it’s still an old school with all the traditions, all that flavour.”
The old SOSS building, and especially the Venables auditorium, were an unusual example of Streamline Moderne architecture. But though the new school and auditorium only retain hints of that unique architectural style, Toneatto said it is no less impressive a structure.
“When they were designing the theatre, the consultant said this would be the nicest 400-seat theatre in Western Canada and at the time people said ‘really, come on,’ but now that it’s done, it’s spectacular,” he said.
And spectacular is a description both Toneatto and Hiibner extend to the rest of the school as well.
Hiibner said when students visit from other schools, they are struck speechless.
“People want to come to school to be here they’re excited. They want to go to their science class because they have this brand new science wing, the gym is gorgeous and the theatre, it’s amazing.”
Hiibner said the teachers are just as excited as the students.
“If you got to come teach in this amazing new facility with state-of-the-art brand-new technology, I think you would be more excited about your job, about watching your students succeed,” she said.
“It’s something to be proud of. We have this amazing facility. There is just like a sense of this overwhelming sense of school spirit.
“There’s a much bigger sense of community.”