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Moving walls, changing education

When Centennial secondary school first opened its doors 44 years ago, it was considered a model for the latest trends in education.

When Centennial secondary school first opened its doors 44 years ago, it was considered a model for the latest trends in education.

Fast forward to today and a replacement school could provide the same inspiration for what's being touted as 21st century learning.

Not only will the $49-million building meet the highest environmental standards, it will be designed to include a community hub for youth, immigrants and post-secondary education, a theatre that can be transformed into a large meeting space, and flexible classrooms that can be modified to adapt to different teaching strategies using the latest technology.

The public will get its first look at plans for the new Centennial project during a Jan. 17 open house at the school when architects and staff will be on hand to answer questions about the two-storey building for 1,250 students slated to begin construction this year.

The project was one of five announced by the province in 2009 in a $128-million commitment to build four replacement schools: James Park elementary and Pitt River middle in Port Coquitlam, Centennial in Coquitlam, and Moody middle in Port Moody, plus a new middle school in Anmore that has just received approval for construction.

Much research into education trends and new school design has gone into the Centennial project, with field trips to other new high schools in Metro Vancouver. Following public consultation, architects Graham Hoffart Mathiasen will begin the working drawings necessary for construction, said Carey Chute, SD43's principal of facilities initiatives.

"We spent a year going out to look at the community and the students and tried to get feedback around 21st century learning. We brought in the high schools [and talked about] trying to enhance that sense of community and build a building that will support that," Chute said.

At 18,000 sq. m, the new building will be slightly smaller than the current school but will be expandable. It will also have a teaching kitchen and shops for metal, automotive and carpentry, as well as a 220-seat theatre with a larger backstage than it now has.

Extra funds have been set aside to build a neighbourhood learning centre in the second phase of construction that will house a welcoming centre for new immigrants, youth programs and space for post-secondary programs. Chute said he is in discussions with SFU and BCIT about the latter, which "would be a bit of a satellite model, bringing some of the programs to the community."

As a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold building, the new Centennial secondary will be a high-functioning, low-energy building, Chute said, with natural light throughout, natural landscaping and innovations to improve air circulation, such as chimneys to draw out warmer air.


Figuring out where to put the new building was no picnic because a natural gas pipeline cuts through the property - and for a time, the district considered moving the school - but the architects came up with a plan to build the new school on a north-south angle behind the existing school with the front of the building situated on what is now a rear parking lot.

Adding to the challenge is the fact the current building will be in operation during the 18- to 24-month construction period, so the project is being staged, with the learning centre to be built last. It will be attached to a section of the current school that is relatively new and will be retained and repurposed, including a gym. A second gym will be added, with a weight room and space for dance classes and floor work.

Once the new school is in place, the old building will be torn down to make space for playing fields, continuing the transformation of the Poirier Street civic precinct that began with the replacement of Chimo pool and the upgrade of the Poirier Sport and Leisure Complex as well as the Coquitlam Public Library renovation.


Timing of construction is intriguing in other ways as it is being developed at the same time as a new 21st century personalized learning vision is being developed for B.C.'s education system. The province is in the consultation phase of this long-term vision at the same time SD43 is developing its own Learning without Boundaries vision.

Although many of these concepts need to be fleshed out, the idea is to tailor education to individual student needs using new technology and flexible teaching strategies. In many ways, the new Centennial school will be designed to accommodate the changes that this transformation is expected to bring about.

For example, hallways will be wider to create a study area where students can collaborate on projects, and classrooms will be built with moveable walls so teachers and their students can work together on topics or projects.

The school will also be wireless and connected by fibre optics to the internet (as all SD43 high schools soon will be) and such seamless connections to technology might eliminate the need for a library. Still, the library will be a key feature of the new school, Chute said.

"We see the library as one of the showpieces in there," he said. "It's positioned to be a crucial aspect of the building." It will be situated next to an amphitheater with a southern exposure that can be used for band and choir concerts, outdoor classrooms or independent study - and just hanging out.

Principal Rob Zambrano said the library will be designed as a casual learning place for kids with study spaces that have a coffee shop feel - "not only for comfort but to allow kids to be together and produce meaningful work."

"Libraries are hubs of student activity and we're trying to enhance that," Zambrano said.

As for the rest of the school, he said, "My job is to work with the staff to see the potential in what that could mean to education and learning."

Costs will ultimately determine how far the district can go in creating a flexible, integrated learning environment, although the goal is to make the building flexible enough to adapt to education changes over the next several decades.


School District 43 is hosting an open house for the public to view designs and ask questions about a $49-million replacement school being built behind the existing Centennial secondary.

The meeting will be held in Centennial's multi-purpose room Tuesday, Jan. 17 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

When complete, the new Centennial will house 1,250 students and a neighbourhood learning centre.