100 Years: A Legacy of Growth and Learning

By Theresa Wells - Friday, August 31 2012

So many lives have become intertwined, influenced and enriched by the schools, teachers and classrooms of Wood Buffalo. Everyone who has contributed to this history of success and achievement deserves acknowledgment and recognition.

Children, their education, and their healthy social development were as much of a priority 100 years ago as they are today in Wood Buffalo. “We know when it began,” says historian and author John Gilpin. “There aren’t many documents from then, but it was recorded in the Athabasca News. A community meeting was held in January 1912, and the topic was the need for a school in Fort McMurray.” It is difficult to imagine this region in 1912, but from a small community meeting that year came the Fort McMurray Public School District (FMPSD). The growth and change in the region have been mirrored in the school district, although many things have stayed the same.

“I started Grade 7 at Peter Pond School in 1966,” Fort McMurray resident Joan Furber says. “My children went to Dr. Clarke, and then to Composite High School. Now my grandchildren attend Dr. Clarke and Composite too,” she laughs. “My husband Hugh started in 1958 in Grade 1 at Waterways School. We met at school. He was my high school sweetheart.”

Joan and her husband met and married and then sent their children to Fort McMurray schools. Now their grandchildren walk the same halls their parents did. It’s a legacy not unusual in this community, although the district has gone through periods of significant change, too.

Until 1969 the schools in Fort McMurray were part of the Northlands School Division, but that changed just as the region did. When Highway 63 appeared in the mid-1960s the community suddenly had easier access to the wider world – and so did the schools.

“When you look at the yearbooks from that era you see that school teams start travelling everywhere,” John Gilpin explains. “This wasn’t a remote area anymore, and that is when the decision to become independent of the Northlands Division was made.”

On May 22, 1969, the FMPSD officially became an entity. The division from Northlands made sense in a region that was already experiencing rapid change and growth of the kind that has continued into the present, including an explosion in cultural diversity in the community, and in the schools.

“In the early years of my career most of the cultural diversity in the schools was found in the downtown area,” says Lorraine Demers, who has been with the district for 32 years. “Now it has spread throughout the city.”

In some schools you have students with 60 different nations as their country of origin. What is worth noting is that the students are very interested in making friends with children from other countries. The experiences of our students allow us to explore a richer curriculum because they bring those personal stories to our classrooms.”

This is echoed by George Decker, retiring Beacon Hill School principal and another 32-year employee of the district. “In Fort McMurray, kids just take that diversity for granted,” he says. “The nature of our schools is that diversity is the norm.”

It is a sentiment expressed by current students. “Lunch time is interesting,” says Samantha Wells, Ecole McTavish Junior High Grade 7 student and school representative on the centennial organizing committee. “All the kids pull out their lunches and you see foods from all over the world. They are always willing to share so you can try something new.” Something so basic to culture and identity as cuisine has become a link between students, allowing them to explore diversity.

Now, as they celebrate their centennial, the FMPSD is looking into the future. As the region and community grow and develop, the challenges and opportunities just keep coming.

“Our future includes preparing students to take their place as responsible citizens and contribute to our local community,” states Dr. Brenda Sautner, Associate Superintendent, Education and Administration.

“Our students will continue to be inspired to achieve success and fulfilment as engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit.” The district has pioneered the concept of creating the 21st-century learner, but the challenge will be providing the infrastructure necessary to meet
that goal.

“The district is a microcosm of the community,” says Dennis Parsons, FMPSD Superintendent. “Our biggest challenge is providing the infrastructure and having our needs recognized and addressed. What is going on in Fort McMurray is extraordinary, and extraordinary measures are needed to deal with an extraordinary situation.”

New schools are planned, like an elementary school in Eagle Ridge in 2014, but in a region with a projected population of over 230,000 by 2030, the challenges will continue.

“We have about 1,200 babies born here every year and more new young families arriving. We are looking at growths that will double the size of our community. Going forward, we will need to work extremely hard to do what’s best for kids,” says Superintendent Parsons.

It appears that after the din of its 100th centennial celebrations subsides, Fort McMurray Public School District will continue to do what it began in January of 1912 – educate children, and do what is best for kids.

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