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North Van's new Ecole Argyle Secondary reflects modern approach to learning

Students will walk through the doors of North Vancouver's newest high school in January. Built at a cost of over $61 million, the new Argyle has been four years in the making.

The first thing you notice when you step into the entrance atrium at the new Ecole Argyle Secondary is the light. The ceiling rises high above the second floor of the school. Even a weak winter sun pours in through huge glass walls and windows.

It feels like an expansive space that welcomes the outside world in.

During a recent tour, workers were still putting details in place – shop equipment was still to be moved over and books put on shelves in the library. Final details will be wrapped over the high school’s winter break and students and teachers will walk through the doors of their new school the first week of January.

It’s an impressive building, a long time in the making.

Four years in the making

Originally announced in 2016, the budget for the school then was just over $49 million – with approximately $38 million coming from the province and the school district contributing $11 million. After construction costs ballooned, the provincial government agreed to kick in an additional $12 million. Since then, trustees have bolstered the budget at least twice – first with an extra $4 million toward the rebuilds of Argyle and Handsworth, then with an additional $1.5 million in contingency funds.

Argyle’s library, directly off the atrium, is as sleek and welcoming as any modern counterpart. Beyond the bookshelves, countertop-style work areas with built-in laptop charging stations look out through floor-to-ceiling glass towards what will be an outdoor learning area.

On the other side of the massive central lobby, a theatre can be enclosed to seat up to 100 people or opened up to accommodate up to 250.

Instead of traditional classrooms, the school is designed around learning “communities” or hubs, which include four flexible classroom spaces, along with a smaller breakout room for individual or small group work, plus a teachers’ preparation area. The emphasis is less on ownership of specific classrooms and more on collaborative learning and teaching and the physical environment reflects that, says Mark Pearmain, superintendent for the North Vancouver school district. “It’s meant to be used as needed.”

Each classroom has its own audio-visual system, complete with wi-fi and a projector screen whiteboard.

School designed with green energy in mind

The heating and ventilation systems are also much more up to date than they are in older schools. Classrooms are kept warm or cooled with an air-to-water heat exchanger system that works like a combination heat pump and modern-day radiator. Compared to earlier heating and ventilation systems, there’s a minimum of fans and forced air, says Mark Thomson, capital projects manager for the school district.

“It’s energy efficient and it’s green,” he said.

The building is powered primarily through electricity rather than fossil fuels, and lighting is set to automatically adapt to natural light levels.

The environmentally friendly systems cost more upfront, says Thomson but “it decreases the long-term operating costs significantly.”

Massive gym a standout feature

One of the standout components of the new school is a massive gym, which combines the floor space of Argyle’s existing small and large gyms into one space that can either be partitioned into up to three spaces – or opened up completely.

The gym, change rooms and adjacent dance/yoga studio with a mirrored barre and gleaming floors can also be locked off from the rest of the school when being used for community events.

Nearby, a band room and choir rehearsal area with sound baffles have also been set up for after-hours use and for ease of moving instruments in and out of the building.

Other details like a digital media academy space complete with editing booths and green screen, a large metal and woodworking shop area and foods room with six shiny new stoves round out first impressions.

The new Argyle is built for an enrolment of 1,300 students - more than its current enrolment of 1,259. If enrolment increases, however, the new school should be up to the task, said Pearmain. Most secondary schools can be run at 115 per cent capacity, he said – not all secondary students take a full course load, and some classes – like music – happen before or after the official school day.

Not surprisingly, there are a lot of logistics involved in moving an entire school to another building.

The question of "stuff"

Educational assistant Joyce Griffiths is the school district’s go-to move co-ordinator to make sure it goes as smoothly as possible.

On the day of our tour, Griffiths is grappling with the logistics of moving a grand piano.

Pianos aside, one of Griffiths’ unofficial roles has been a kind of educational Marie Kondo, who gently but firmly encourages staff not to move all that “stuff” into the new building.

“Teachers love file cabinets,” she says. “But they maybe don’t need a file cabinet for 20-year-old stuff.”

“What we do in education now is not what we did.”

As in people’s homes, in a 50-year-old school “there’s a lot of stuff that accumulates,” says Pearmain.

A chance to reevaluate that is part of the excitement, he says. “A school move is a really big catalyst for change. Do we really need X, Y and Z? And what’s important?”

Both Thomson and Pearmain acknowledge the construction of the school has not all been smooth sailing. The school district has burned through more contingency funds than anticipated, for instance.

One of the early unwelcome surprises was “the soils were pretty lousy” on half of the building site, says Thomson.

That meant the addition of hundreds of 30-foot-long metal pilings to support an entire wing of the school and connect it to solid bedrock.

“There’s probably in the neighbourhood of 400 stilts that this concrete floor is sitting on,” he says.

Those kinds of details won’t be obvious to teens as they walk through the doors on their first day in the school next month.

But Pearmain hopes what they will feel is the value that this kind of building expresses about them and their future place in the community. “We know they’re going to rise to the occasion and ... treat this building the way that it was designed for them,” he says. “As the young adults we believe them to be.”

Virtual Tour of the New Argyle Secondary School from North Vancouver School District on Vimeo.