School rises out of the ashes


Two years after a fire destroyed a significant portion of Southern Okanagan Secondary School, a community gathered together Thursday to write a new chapter of history as Boundary-Similkameen MLA Linda Larson joined students, staff and the community of Oliver to celebrate the official re-opening of the school.

While students, dressed up for the occasion, sat in the bleachers, their parents, grandparents, staff, dignitaries and firefighters filled the floor below. All the firefighters in attendance fought the fire that burned the school in 2011.

And there were plenty of tears along with the laughter, during special presentations and a slide show.

"It was important for Southern Okanagan Secondary School to be built to meet the needs of today, and also for students who will attend in years to come. While it might be a school of the future, it will again honour the work of community steward Frank Venables through the name of the school's auditorium," said Larson.

The new school was built compliant to BC's Wood First Act and designed to LEED Gold standards. Large wood beams are visible throughout the school and complement a spectacular skylight. The building is state-of- the-art with its high ceilings, coloured floors and use of latest technology throughout.

Minister of Education Peter Fassbender says, "It was a fire that tragically destroyed most of Southern Okanagan Secondary School but it didn't destroy the community spirit. Today we celebrate a new home, a new beginning and a new legacy."

Many who spoke at the ceremony made reference to the devastating fire and the effort it took to rebuild the school.

Mitch Van Aller, the director of facilities for School District 53, was overcome with emotion as he spoke of the challenges faced by the district and community.

He described all who played a part as a well assembled team who overcame obstacles.

"I think all of us are champions," he said.

Principal Marcus Toneatto, who served as the MC, told the packed house when the school was originally built in 1948 it was referred to as the Taj Mahal of schools in the province.

"And with the current school, we are the new Taj Mahal," he said.

 The school boasts 7,475 total square meters (80,460 square feet) with a capacity for 550 students in grades 8 to 12, and includes an auditorium as well as a Neighbourhood Learning Centre.

Visitors and students flocked to the new Frank Venables Theatre, during tours offered after the ceremony.

Grade 12 student and tour host Rannan Chernoff described the new 400 seat theatre as absolutely beautiful.

It also means a lot to him to attend his last months at the school in state-of-the-art classrooms, rather than portables.

"I was a student here, when the fire happened in my grade 10 year. It was hard for all of us to see something that meant so much more than most people think of just burn down," he said. "The school now means great things, new things for everyone. It really means a lot to me."

The original school was undergoing a $29 million renovation when the fire destroyed about 60 per cent of the building on Sept. 12, 2011. Following the fire, $5.9 million was provided to respond to the loss and $20.8 million to complete the building.

The school was originally constructed in 1948, with additions in 1966, 1977 and 1982.


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