Best High School:
A single crane towers over what was once Kitsilano Secondary School. The aging 1927 heritage building is now a shell of its former self, hollowed out to the sky for seismic upgrades with only the iconic exterior left standing.
It’s not the end of the 89-year-old institution, however. Just behind the ruins sits the new wing of Kits High – phase one of a multi-year, $62.2-million construction project – which students moved into in September.
It’s a looker: Light fills the long double-height central commons, bouncing off elegant wood panels on its way down to the polished hallway floors, where students gather quietly on their way to spacious art studios and science labs.
The only problem is, the school can’t quite hold all 1,300 students… yet.
“Right now we don’t have everybody in this building,” explains principal Jim Burnham, seated in his office one bustling school day afternoon. “We have about 40 per cent of our students outside [in the tech wing of the old building], which we’ve gutted and turned into classrooms, a library area, a fitness room, and we’ve turned the main causeway into a cafeteria.”
There are also seven portables (including one dedicated to English and yoga) as well as some less than ideal accommodations.
“Some of the classrooms don’t have any windows because they were an auto body shop, [or] tech woodwork and metalwork,” Burnham adds, with slightly weary smile, “so some teachers are happy, some are less happy.”
In fact, the replacement school – one of the priciest school renovations in the history of the province – isn’t expected to be finished until summer of 2017, but that hasn’t stopped the work-in-progress from winning Best High School in our Best of the City Readers’ Choice poll this year.
Maybe it’s a credit to Kits High’s decades of learning, locker talk, and sporting glory, or maybe it’s because there is a noticeably positive hum of urban energy coursing through the halls.
(Who are we kidding, our readers are just clearly shouting out the awesomeness that is Kits High alumni Ryan Reynolds, but we digress...)
Eventually, when the old building is rebuilt, the two will be linked, bringing an academic wing, a new library, three gymnasiums, and a 350-seat theatre into the fold, which is surely what drama teacher Ryan Parker is looking forward to most. When construction left him without an auditorium in which to put on proper theatre productions, Parker had to think outside the box – literally.
“[He] has only been here a couple of years, but he’s very creative,” says Burnham, appreciatively. “And he’s already, I think, getting a name for himself outside. People are now sending their kids to come here just because ‘Mr. Parker’ is the drama person.”
Parker took over the reins from respected drama instructor Julie Bond, who retired in 2014, with a clear goal: to double the drama enrolment among Grade 9 students, and create the strongest high school theatre program in the Lower Mainland.
Since then, enrolment among the Grade 9s has grown from just nine students to 60, and he is building a reputation for fun, ambitious projects.
One of those is Focus, a 10-hour, 10-episode TV series being created and shot by his senior students, in collaboration with the school’s film and writing departments. Falling somewhere between Degrassi and the British television hit Skins, Focus weaves together the inner monologues and outward exploits of fictional Kits High students into a parentally appeasing dramedy.
“As far as we can tell, no one has done something like this in Canada or North America,” Parker says of the large-scale project, when reached by phone in his classroom this week.
Using money raised by the program last year, as well as funds from the Parent Advisory Council, the drama department has purchased professional-grade cameras, rigs, boom mics and microphones, as well as the necessary computer software to train the students on the film industry while they wait for their theatre to be completed. Parker has also rented out the Rio to screen the completed episodes over five weeks in May and June.
As far as school projects go, this one had mass appeal.
“We ended up having 89 students audition, 50 signed up to be extras, we have a crew of about 20 and we’re filming almost every day this week,” says Parker, proudly, as result.
“People will be able to buy tickets to the Rio Theatre to see the students’ finished work. Then we’re doing season two next year – another 10 episodes,” he reveals. “We’ll recast some of the students that are graduating and bring it all to a close just as our auditorium opens up.”