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$23.7-million seismic upgrade completed at Mountainside Secondary

Alternate school was the last in SD44 identified as being at risk in an earthquake

At North Vancouver’s Mountainside Secondary, it’s what’s inside that’s important.

And what’s true for the students and teachers at the school is also now reflected in the bones of the building itself ¬– an inner strength that makes all the difference.

On Friday, students, school trustees, North Vancouver MLAs and members of the North Vancouver community, including District of North Vancouver Mayor Mike Little, marked the completion of a lengthy $23.7 million seismic upgrade project at the school – the last of three significant seismic upgrade projects in the North Vancouver school district.

Unlike the Argyle and Handsworth rebuild projects – both of which involved replacing the old buildings with new schools – in the case of Mountainside, seismic upgrades were completed on the existing 64-year-old school.

Grade 12 student Natalie MacDonald said as a 2023 grad, “I’m honoured to be part of the first class to breathe new life into this updated school.”

200 students attend alternate programs at high school

Mountainside houses what used to be known as the district’s alternate school programs, emphasizing individualized programs and flexible pathways to graduation or school completion. About 200 students in grades ranging from 9 to 12 attend the school.

For most of the students attending Mountainside, “school has not been an easy, linear journey,” said principal Lucas King.

Typically, “alternate programs are housed in rundown portables,” King, “and it feels like students who need the supports that these programs provide end up in physical spaces that don’t help build their self esteem and self worth.”

But Mountainside is different. The money and effort that has gone into the recent upgrade has demonstrated that these students are valued, said King.

Unlike some other upgrade projects, school at Mountainside continued during work on the building. Some of that was possible because many of Mountainside’s classrooms are flexible spaces that aren’t all in use at the same time. Classes were moved to different parts of the school as the work progressed in phases, said King.

Originally scheduled to be completed in 2021, the project took longer than expected but “it was worth the wait,” he said.

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Principal Lucas King leads a group of North Vancouver school trustees and district staff on a tour of the upgraded school, Friday. Some of the external steel supports are visible on the outside of the school.| Jane Seyd / North Shore News

Buttresses most visible sign

The large buttresses on the outside of the building are the most visible sign of the upgrade. High strength steel runs through those buttresses and under the floor slabs of the building, tying the concrete floors to the buttresses, said Director of Facilities Jim Mackenzie.

Some steel bracing is visible and has been incorporated as an architectural element on the exterior of the building. Other significant seismic work is hidden in concrete structures under the floor of the school.

The province also kicked in additional money to address other issues discovered during construction, as well as to make the building more energy efficient and to upgrade heating and ventilation systems.

In one part of the building, two small washrooms were combined to create a bike storage and b-bike charging area for staff.

One benefit of doing an upgrade – as opposed to a rebuild – is the school was also able to keep its much-appreciated large gym, said King.

Many programs offered

Along with individualized learning programs, the school offers drop-in sessions for students with doctors, nurses and social workers. A music therapy room is equipped with a piano and guitars and an assistance dog Dervish is a regular feature at the school.

One special program run out of Mountainside for students with mental health challenges combines group and individual therapy with academic work.

The Salvation Army provides a hot lunch in the cafeteria daily through a food recovery program with packaged leftovers available for students to take home.

A dedicated school bus which can be driven by several licensed staff members is also available for field trips.

Taylor Spencer, a 15-year-old Grade 10 student at Mountainside, said the school has been life-changing for her.

In Grade 8, in her former high school, she struggled academically to keep up because of her learning disabilities. After a hard loss in her family “I started to fall behind,” she said. “My grades were not amazing. My attendance was not amazing.”

At Mountainside, that’s changed, she said. Staff and teachers at the school “go out of their way to make you feel cared about. Now I’m on track to graduate on time.”

Taylor said while at the school, she’s also discovered a newfound passion for painting.

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Student Taylor Spencer takes a moment to pet certified assistance dog Dervish, a regular fixture at Mountainside Secondary. | Jane Seyd / North Shore News

School first opened in 1959

Mountainside is the last school in the North Vancouver school district that engineers had identified as being at high risk of collapse during a major earthquake. It’s the 15th building to be seismically updated or rebuilt in the school district since 2007.

Mountainside was originally known as Balmoral, which opened in 1959 and functioned as a middle school and junior high school until it was closed by the school district in 2009. It reopened as Mountainside in 2013.

In announcing a seismic upgrade rather than a rebuild of the school back in 2018, then-Education Minister Rob Fleming said a rebuild would have cost $8 million more and was hard to justify given the school’s enrolment is about 60 per cent of the building’s capacity.

Since 2017, the province has spent $101.7 million on school improvements in North Vancouver, including $68.7 million for the recently completed rebuild of Handsworth Secondary, which increased the school’s capacity to 1,400 students.

Next on the list of capital projects is a six-classroom expansion of Lynn Valley Elementary, which will expand the school’s capacity by about 145 students.

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