Three cool new high schools open in the capital region

There’s at least one good thing about starting the year in a brand-new school.

“Clean slate for everyone,” says 17-year-old Katie Rufh, a Grade 12 student at the newly built $38.6-million Royal Bay Secondary.

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“No one knows each other in here, no one knows the building, no one has to feel like they’re lost because everyone’s lost together.”

Royal Bay, a new $50.8-million Belmont Secondary and a new $52.5-million Oak Bay High all opened Tuesday, a rare trio of new high schools opening in one region. Royal Bay and the new Belmont are in the Sooke school district and replace the old Belmont facility, while the new Oak Bay replaces its namesake in the Greater Victoria school district.

“I’m more than excited to be in here,” said Rufh, who actually didn’t have to be at school until today — just Grade 9s and 10s attended Tuesday at Royal Bay and Belmont.

She said she kept an eye on Royal Bay during construction. “I’ve watched the school grow. I was kind of a freak. I kind of came by every day and watched the school being built up from the ground.”

Lara Hamburg, also a 17-year-old Grade 12 student at Royal Bay, had kind words for the aging Belmont she left behind, saying it had “really good character.” Hamburg, who was part of a band playing Tuesday for students and staff entering the school, said she is looking forward to “a new feeling” at Royal Bay.

Sooke school board chairwoman Wendy Hobbs said the simultaneous opening of Royal Bay and the new Belmont is the culmination of at least 15 years of work by many people.

“We’ve had different trustees, we’ve had our municipalities, our mayors, our councils. We’ve had all our partner groups. It’s been a complete community involvement to get these two new high schools.”

Royal Bay will have about 800 Grade 9-12 students and Belmont will have about 1,100. Each school has special amenities, Hobbs said.

“[Royal Bay] has the basketball court up on the roof and it’s got the rubber track … and the culinary-arts cafeteria. And Belmont, of course, is intertwined with all of the Eagle Ridge [community] facilities, so they’ve got a lot of sports facilities over there and they’ll have the Belmont hockey school over there.

“So they both have their unique features but they both are going to be offering a full, comprehensive education for our students.”

Hobbs said the new high schools are likely attracting additional students because of all they have to offer.

“I think probably a lot of our kids have migrated back home from being out of district.”

She said the district’s building plans won’t stop with the new high schools.

“We need more schools because we’re still a growing district.”

Trustee Ravi Parmar, who graduated from the old Belmont in 2012 and was a vocal advocate for new schools during his time there, said he is “very excited” to see the facilities open. Parmar led an 800-student walkout at the old Belmont in May 2011 to call for its replacement.

“It’s such a proud day to be a trustee in this district,” he said.

At the new Belmont, Grade 12 student Claire Church said while saying goodbye to the old school, which is now being demolished, was emotional, she was looking forward to being in the new school.

“It’s so exciting to see all the Grade 9 and 10 students that don’t even know what the old Belmont is,” said Church, 17. “So it’s really exciting to start off the Belmont history with the new Belmont.”

High ceilings and the open, airy design give the school a good feeling, she said.

“To be honest it doesn’t even feel like a school, it feels like a recreational centre. It just feels like people could really learn … in a really awesome place.”

At Oak Bay High School, principal Dave Thomson described the reaction of students entering the school Tuesday as “slack-jawed, eyes gaping, staring around.”

“I had a whole whack of kids who came by and were high-fiving me and shaking my hand and saying something positive.”

About 1,300 Grade 9-12 students will attend the Oak Bay school.

Thomson said students had the opportunity to get involved in the school right away at a Tuesday barbecue to support Oak Bay’s annual campaign for Cops for Cancer.

He noted that the project to build a new Oak Bay school was also many years in the making, and came together after it was determined that refurbishing the old school and giving it a seismic upgrade would not be cost-effective.

Oak Bay Grade 12 student Olivia Winther, 17, said she is looking forward to the year. “It’s so nice to have a nice, new school.”

Grade 12 student Jessica Izard said people definitely like the building

“The spirit level walking in was pretty high,” said the 17-year-old. “The teachers were all wearing their ‘Oh Be Proud’ shirts and leadership students were telling people where to go. It’s really like ‘O.B. Nation’ coming together.”

About 38,000 public-school students are returning to classes in the capital region this week, spread among the Sooke, Greater Victoria, Saanich and Gulf Islands school districts. Around the province, more than 500,000 students are in the public system.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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