Students wait to be called up to the front rows at the March 8 groundbreaking.

Students wait to be called up to the front rows at the March 8 groundbreaking.

Sandspit breaks ground for new Agnes L. Mathers Elementary

Groundwork for the new Agnes L. Mathers Elementary and Junior Secondary School started this week. It is expected to open next fall.

It took some snow shovelling just to find the soil, but last week Sandspit finally broke ground on a new school.

Early site work for the new Agnes L. Mathers Elementary and Junior Secondary School was scheduled to start this Monday, with the $3.2-million kindergarten to Grade 7 school set to open next September.

While smaller than the existing school, the new ALM will have brand-new classrooms for its 35 students, a new library, dedicated rooms for e-school and StrongStart, plus a community health clinic with two exam rooms and a separate entrance.

The existing school gym will stay, with a renovated exterior to match the new building beside it.

“In a lot of ways, the school and the community are one and the same,” said former ALM principal Leighann Rodger, speaking at a well-attended groundbreaking ceremony on March 8.

Even nine years ago, when she first moved to Haida Gwaii, Rodger said there had long been talk of a new Sandspit school a sign of how much work went into making it happen.

Kim Goetzinger, vice-chair of the Haida Gwaii school board, said the new school has been on the table for the six years she has been an elected trustee.

“It has not been an easy process convincing other board members, but I have a true connection to Sandspit,” she said, noting that her family lived in Sandspit before she was born, and residents have been very welcoming throughout all the consultations.

Speaking after students sang ‘The Garden Song,’ a school favourite that includes the linesInch by inch, row by row / Gonna make this garden grow,” Superintendent Dawna Johnson-Day said those words ring true.

“It may have felt very much like ‘inch by inch’ moving forward and maybe backward a few inches, and still catching up,” she said, thanking the school and district staff who kept working on the project.

Design work for the new school foundation and septic field did cause delays, but maintenance supervisor Steve Goffic said the final plans are very close to what the community discussed.

Sided with cedar and featuring bathrooms in the main classes, the school will have a floor area of 629 m2 (6,711 square feet), about three-quarters the size of the existing school.

One major change residents wanted to see was a pitched rather than a flat roof something that was outside the current budget, but which could be added later.

Pre-fabricated in Aldergrove, B.C. by Shelter Modular but customized by Craven Huston Powers Architects, the 11 modules that make up the school will be trucked to Prince Rupert and brought over on a single barge this summer.

Fictorie Construction Management, which oversaw construction of the Port Clements Multiplex in 2009, will manage the project.

At the March 8 groundbreaking, students dug in with trowels while alumni and family of school namesake Agnes Mathers stood by with shiny, gold-painted shovels.

Haida elder and former Sandspit resident Gladys Vandal, Jiixa, first blessed the ground in Haida language, and students opened the ceremony by dancing into the gym wearing button blankets, drumming and singing the Haida national anthem.

They also danced the Eagle, Raven, and blanket dances, and carried hand-painted canoe paddles made with guidance from First Nations support worker Tyler Crosby, who led the students’ singing and thanked them for participating in Haida culture.

Behn Cochrane, a former students who now teaches at ALM, said it was fitting that the ceremony happened on International Women’s Day.

Born in 1900, Agnes L. Mathers grew up in Sandspit with her homesteader parents but had to finish high school away in Prince Rupert and Vancouver to achieve her dream of becoming a teacher.

After briefly teaching in the Kispiox Valley, Mathers returned home in 1929, just when the little school in Lawn Hill was closing for lack of students. By offering to bring four of her siblings, Mathers kept the school open and served the rest of her 39-year teaching career on island.

“She taught 10 pupils in six different grades, and she used the forest, beaches and ponds around the school as her classroom,” said Cochrane.

Alex Matson, who started going to school in Sandspit at a one-room, wood-heat schoolhouse in 1949, was among the former students of Agnes Mathers at the groundbreaking.

“It’s long overdue,” he said, smiling.

“I was in Grade 3 when this one was built.”

Marg Charman said she too can remember her aunt Agnes, who used to drive her to school in the morning after a ritual breakfast of one egg, one slice of toast, a grapefruit, and a coffee.

“She was an atrocious driver,” Charman said.

“You’d bunny hop out of the driveway!”

Charman said the old school has lots of memories, but she is excited for Sandspit, given the old building is starting to crumble around the edges.

“I think Aunt Ag would be excited too,” she said. “She was always a forward thinker she went with the times.”