feature 235 

Across most of Canada, the one-room school has fallen into the annals of history — four walls, desks, a chalkboard and a whole bunch of memories that occupy a place in the hearts of generations of Canadians who learned their readin', writin' and 'rithmatic in tiny buildings staffed by one teacher. Author W.O. Mitchell etched the romanticism of the one-room school into the pages of Canadiana in his novel Don't Shoot the Teacher. But many feel the days of multiple grades and one teacher all in one room are gone; most of the schools have been torn down in the name of progress and expanding populations. But along Portage Road, on the way to D'Arcy, sits a piece of modern Canadiana. And when Brenda Gow rings the hand bell Tuesday morning to usher in the 1995-96 school year she will throw open the doors of the last remaining one-room school in the Howe Sound School District, and one of the few left in the province. It's an unassuming building with a dark red exterior, grounds of deep green clover and, yes, one room. Well, actually one building with two areas separated by boys and girls bathrooms. As the full-time teacher and vice-principal of the Blackwater Creek Elementary School Gow is entering her second year as chief book and face washer for the kids from Birken, D'Arcy and Devine who attend Kindergarten to Grade 3. After graduating from Grade 3 students make the bus trip to Signal Hill Elementary. The student population at Blackwater Creek has ranged from a low of 11 to a high of 23 eight years ago. Last year the number hit 15. "This year I expect we will have 18 to 20 kids, but you never really know until the bodies hit the desks," says Gow, who has been teaching in the Howe Sound School District for 25 years. She was offered the job at Blackwater Creek because she was one of the few teachers left in the district with experience in a one-room setting. She spent time teaching Whistler kids during the last years of Alta Lake School, a one-room operation on the west side of the Whistler Valley. When the first Myrtle Philip Elementary was being constructed in Whistler Village Gow took 23 Whistler kids from Grades 1 to 4 to Pemberton's Signal Hill Elementary and taught them in one room there. "This is kind of a different world up here, it's so beautiful," says Gow. "The things that happen here are the same things that used to happen in the old days… because of the size of the school those things can still happen." The quarterly potluck dinners are one of the facets of Blackwater Creek that would make many folks nostalgic, as the families of students, including older brothers and sisters, fill the school with the sights, sounds and smells of potluck. Up to 60 people pack the school for an evening of fun, food and entertainment. "Those are the kind of things that don't happen in larger schools simply because of numbers, it's hard to organize," she says. Gow's family lives in Squamish, but she stays in the small teacherage beside the school during the week and drives home on the weekend, making the drive back to school Monday morning. With competent and innovative help from a support staff made up of teaching assistant Cathy Giguere, bus driver/groundskeeper Mib Menzel and custodian Val Bunt, Gow says there is never a dull moment at Blackwater Creek. The sunflower the students planted in the spring has been well-tended all summer and is now twice as tall as the kids. School districts across British Columbia spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build elaborate science labs to teach students about the intrinsic value of nature, but at Blackwater Creek the science lab is the vast area surrounding the school. "We do a field trip every Friday and the first field trip will be to Blackwater Creek to watch the Sockeye Salmon spawn," she says. "We're in a wilderness setting here, but we're still very close to the rest of the towns in the district." While most schools send notices home about bake sales and raffles, Gow remembers the day last year when a cougar walked calmly down the road in front of the school and she had to send cougar notices home with the kids. Because of the small size of the school, some of the educational aspects have been scaled down. There is not enough room to store a lot of books so the library is not as large as others in the district, and the gymnasium is non-existent. "Actually, this is our gym," she says gesturing at the open field surrounding the school. But the times they are a changin' at Blackwater Creek. The Howe Sound School District has identified a replacement facility for the one-room school as a priority in its five year capital plan. Like many other schools of the one room variety, Blackwater's days could be numbered. The school district is still looking for a suitable site for the new school and feelings are divided in the community about the necessity of replacing the old school with a larger one. Being on the outskirts of one of the fastest growing school districts in the province, even Blackwater isn't safe from the construction boom. The road through Birken leading to the school is lined with almost two dozen real estate signs advertising property for sale — harbingers of the interest in the area and signs of the times for Blackwater Creek. Officials from the Howe Sound School District and local governments are meeting today to discuss future growth projections and possible sites for a replacement school for Blackwater Creek. In their 1995-96 capital plan school district administrators have put a $2.1 million price tag on an 1,107 square metre school that would open in 1997 and have space for 125 students, from Kindergarten to Grade 7. "I think a lot of those people that would be looking to buy in this area would be young families and I would say that it looks like the growth will be there in the next couple of years to warrant a new school, but most of the factors are still unknown," says Gow. The school was built in the early 1940s, as the nearby Devine Lumber Company expanded and the employees at the sawmill needed a place for their children to learn. Originally part of the Kamloops School District, the first entry in the Blackwater Creek guest book is from October of 1946 and it contains the names of Mr. McLellan, inspector of schools for the Kamloops School District, Mr. Estabrook, chair of the Kamloops School District, Mr. Devine of the Devine Lumber Co. and Mr. Weeks, a local rancher. "There are a lot of interesting names in this book," Gow says as she peruses the aged pages. "It's a big day for the students here when they get visitors because most of the time we see a lot of each other." A new coat of paint has brightened the interior of the school and plans are in the works to paint the outside next summer. A structural study done on the school this year shows the facility is in sound shape. "With the new paint it seems the old girl should be good for another 25 years," Gow says with a smile. Despite the limitations of the small school Gow says the low student numbers and the innovative educational aspect of the natural surroundings outweigh any concerns about quality education. Every student from Grade 1 to 3 had a computer last year, the highest student-computer ratio in the district. As the debate over plans to build a new school continues, Brenda Gow and about 20 students will continue watching the Sockeye spawn and keep their eyes peeled for cougars as the legacy of the one room school lives on — for now — at Blackwater Creek.

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