It has stood the test of time for 100 years—Central School, the majestic red brick building on Richter Street, has watched Kelowna grow around it since opening its doors in 1914.
The building, the oldest school in the city still being used as a school, has seen generations of local families pass through its halls, passageways that still echo with the memory of the thousands of young students taught there over the years.
This weekend, that history will be at the forefront as the school celebrates a century of learning in the building nicknamed the Grand Old Lady of Richter Street.
According to current Central Okanagan Board of Education chairwoman Moyra Baxter, while it offers a different type of education today, the school is as relevant now as it was in 1914.
“It showed that 100 years ago the city fathers saw this was something that was really important for the community,” said Baxter, adding its role today as the main centre for alternate education programs, distance learning and adult education continues that legacy of learning.
One hundred years ago, at the opening ceremony of the school, the building was described by MP of the day, Price Ellison, as one of the finest schools in the province, a long way from the first school in the district, a one-room log schoolhouse built on the west side of Okanagan Lake 39 years earlier.
In its day, Central School was seen as modern, large and possessing features not seen in schools built before that time.
It had what were then considered large windows, a heating and ventilation system, 10 classrooms, multiple teachers and room for students to not only learn but also to play.
“It had three floors (two above ground and a raised basement) which was unusual,” said Sig Ottenbreit, curator of the heritage classroom located inside of Central School.
The classroom, a one-room museum, includes a large collection of items related to classrooms over the years, including everything from writing slates to old textbooks, desks, school supplies, photographs, even a collection of old baseball gloves.
Collection cases contain both metal geometry sets and older wooden ones as well as other odds and ends donated by the public and the school district.
The room is set up to resemble a one-room school house, complete with a blackboard featuring lessons for several grades at once.
A retired teacher who taught in the district for more than 25 years after coming from Saskatchewan where he started teaching in the 1940s, Ottenbreit regularly leads tours through the classroom, relaying the history of both Central School and the eduction system here over the years to both children and adults.
He said Central is important not only for its heritage value as a building but also because of the impact it has had on the community over the years.
For many of the students who went to Central in the early days, formal education stopped when they finished Grade 6.
When Central was built there was no high school in Kelowna and students, especially those in rural communities as Kelowna was back then, would often go to work on either a family farm or look for other work.
“Back in those days, not many people went beyond Grade 8,” said Ottenbreit. “And if they did, many did it by correspondence.”
Over the years, Central School, which is owned by the City of Kelowna and leased to the Central Okanagan School District for as long as it uses it as a school, has been used in many ways.
Originally a Grade 1-6 school, it has been a primary school, the one-time home to the district’s French immersion program in Kelowna and is now the centre for alternate programs, adult education and distance learning.
Along with three other smaller satellite centres in the district, it now provides programs for students who find the regular school system does not work for them.
And, fitting for a building that was seen as ahead of its time when it was built 100 years ago, it remains on the leading edge in terms of offerings available, particularly when it comes to distance education.
An early 20th century building with 21st century equipment, it allows students sitting in one of its classrooms to connect to teachers and other students on the other side of the world through computers and other high-tech equipment.
Teachers use smart boards instead of chalkboards and computers are available throughout the building.
According to principal Curtis Schreiber, what Central offers today is an opportunity for students, both young and old, to continue their education even if they cannot do it through their neighbourhood school.
He said in one case, a man in his 70s returned to school to complete his high school education after quitting school many years earlier in a bid to show his granddaughter the value of education.
With 250 students who attend classes at Central and another 1,600 who participate in distance education programs originating from the school, the Grand Old Lady is showing she is still relevant.
But back in 1914, when the doors of the new, $75,000 school opened, the equipment available now for teaching were not envisioned. Back then it was strictly the three Rs.
The school, designed by Lethbridge, Alta., architect George Nobles and built by local contractor Alfred Ivy’s company, was built to look imposing. It was sited on a four-acre piece of land and intentionally built on a raised basement with a berm added to give it a more stately look.
Students were not allowed to use the front doors of the school—they entered and exited at the rear or at the sides—and were not allowed to play on the lawns in front of the school. They were reserved for class photographs and special occasions.
The school was heated by two large boilers in the basement, fuelled by wood which was stacked up out back. There was no air conditioning system but, according to Ottenbreit, the ventilation system was designed in such as way that there was airflow that helped cool the building inside.
The windows, which took up more wall space than typical schools of the time, were described as being large with the students eyesight in mind. The aim was to provide as much natural light as possible.
The building still has its original windows, the result of a $400,000 renovation two years ago. Last year, the brickwork on the building was repointed as part of the ongoing maintenance. “The district has been very diligent in keeping it up,” said Baxter.
As a local heritage building—and one of the last historic buildings remaining in the city—work at Central is done in such a way as to maintain that historic integrity.
But that has not stopped additions inside that have helped it provide educational opportunities for its students.
A woodshop and an arts room have been added in the basement, as well as other facilities for its modern day students.
“There are challenges working in a 100-year-old building, said Diane Bertram, administrative assistant at Central. For instance, staff are scattered throughout the building rather than being centrally located. And the building is one designed for Kelowna of the early 1900s, not 2014.
But, as Central has show over the last 100 years, it is resilient and will continue to serve the community for years to come.
The Central School centennial celebration is from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 18, with the official opening ceremony at 11 a.m. A time capsule buried 25 years ago will be opened, with items on display. There will be entertainment, demonstrations and the heritage classroom will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. At 12:30 a birthday cake for the school will be cut.