West Park Junior High on 55 Avenue, north of 32 Street, 1970. (Red Deer Archives P5265)

Michael Dawe: 50 years later, everyone still gushes over a modern school

Friday, Oct. 4, the new Westpark Middle School officially opened.

This very modern two-storey school, which cost $18 million to construct, was designed by Berry Architecture with significant input from the students.

It was built to a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold standard. It includes the first solar chimney to be installed in any school building in Alberta.

Another feature is the inclusion of a glassed-in, upper-level space for education students from Red Deer College’s school of education. This observation area will allow student teachers to view the instruction of middle school classes.

The original West Park Junior High School was built 50 years before the new Westpark Middle School.

Plans for that facility began in 1967, at the same time as the Red Deer Junior College was constructed south of 32nd Street.

It seemed fitting the school would be close to the new college campus. Moreover, a major southward expansion of the West Park subdivision was planned. This meant there would soon be a major increase in the numbers of students in the area.

Red Deer had experienced strong growth from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s. The population of the city had surged from 12,000 to more than 26,000.

Both the Red Deer public and Red Deer separate (Catholic) school districts had struggled to meet the enormous increases in the number of students.

A new Eastview Junior High School had been built in 1956 by the Red Deer Public School District, and it had been expanded in 1962. A new Central Junior High School had been built in 1965.

Nevertheless, these two middle schools of the public school district were usually at capacity.

The wisdom of building the new junior high school was clearly demonstrated with a disaster in July 1968. Eastview Junior High School was severely damaged in a fire started by an arsonist.

Accommodating the displaced students would have been nearly impossible without the imminent completion of the West Park School. As it was, the Grade 8 students at Eastview were kept in the south wing of the school, which had been largely spared by the fire. Grade 7s were kept in the elementary schools, while Grade 9s from Eastview were sent to Central.

By the fall 1968, the new West Park Junior High School was ready for occupancy. The building had been designed by the local architectural firm of Bissell and Holman, with Kerry Bissell as the construction liaison. The cost of the new structure was $600,000.

The new school provided more than just new space for students in grades 7 to 9. There had been complaints in the neighbourhood about a shortage of recreation facilities in the area, particularly in terms of a gymnasium.

The new junior high school provided a large new gym space, not only for its students and the general public, but also for students from West Park Elementary School (which did not get a new gym until 1972).

One unique feature of the new junior high school was a large open team-teaching area adjacent to the library. Such spaces had been tried in other communities, particularly Edmonton.

However, this was the first time it was tried in Red Deer. The area did not get as much use as had been envisioned. It was more often used as an ancillary gathering space. After 10 years, the area was converted into regular classrooms.

The official opening of the new West Park Junior High School took place Jan. 15, 1969. More than 500 people turned out, despite very cold weather.

Several dignitaries were present, including the chairs of the public and separate school boards, Ray Lawson and Ted Smiley, Red Deer MLA Bill Ure and Earle Hawkesworth of the Department of Education. The principal of the new school was Bill Heinsen.

Mayor Ed Barrett was the guest speaker for the evening. Barrett’s family had farmed in the rural Waskasoo district on the southside of Red Deer.

Hence, Barrett was able to tell the students what the school site and West Park subdivision had been like back to 1920, when the area was still open farmland.

Everyone marvelled how much had changed. They praised the modern new facility.

They did the same 50 years later, when another very modern and innovative school was opened on an adjacent site in West Park.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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