Strathcona County community bids farewell to Colchester elementary school

By Alex Migdal, Edmonton Journal, May 26, 2013

EDMONTON - Ernest and Margaret Heppner sit in the gymnasium of Colchester elementary school on Sunday afternoon, the only two figures among rows of empty chairs. With fond smiles, they watch a video that chronicles the school’s history.

It’s a narrative that dates back more than 70 years for the Heppner family. Ernest, 79, recalls travelling to Colchester in a horse sleigh in the early 40s when the school was merely a two-room building located across what’s now known as Highway 14. The horse eventually died and Ernest was forced to walk to school.

At that time, Ernest says the students found joy in playing marbles, throwing snowballs and the yearly track meets.

“We liked the days of the track meet because we would get some money and we could buy chocolate bars. Chocolate bars were only five cents a piece,” he says with amusement.

Ernest stayed at Colchester until Grade 8 when he left to work as a dairy farmer, a job he held for 42 years. All four of the Heppners’ children went on to attend Colchester.

But when talk turns to the fact the Strathcona County school will be closing its doors in June, their smiles fade.

“It’s such a nice school,” Margaret says. “When I look around, they finished it off so nicely. It’s sad to see it go.”

Just outside the gymnasium, Colchester is teeming with members of the community who have gathered for a farewell fair to celebrate the school’s legacy.

A group of students in their twenties wave at the school’s business manager and secretary, Mary Powell, who stares blankly for a moment before a look of recognition crosses her face. Parents examine the class photos on the wall, trying to pinpoint their former youthful selves. Most of the current students play outside at the fair, some circled around Goofy the clown, others navigating an inflatable obstacle course.

In a month, all of it will be gone.

The Elk Island Public School Board made that decision in December, when it voted to move the students to Fultonvale elementary-junior high 10 kilometres away. That’s because of the proximity of the controversial Heartland Transmission Line, a 500-kilovolt power line that will span 65 kilometres. A portion of the line is expected to go up about 200 metres away from the school.

Parents and staff demanded the power line be built underground, but the Alberta Utilities Commission argued it would cost an additional $300 million. The school administration wasn’t willing to risk the safety of students, leading to the school’s planned shutdown.

“We’re disappointed, obviously,” says principal Bill Suter, who has led Colchester for six years. Suter has fought against the line for most of his appointment, starting his first month when a sign was posted on the school’s door about a meeting for a proposed power line.

“It’s not the building, it’s the people,” he says. “It’s just a sense of being in a really good place. Even before I started as principal here, the spring before I came out, I just stood outside the front doors and watched the kids as they came out at the end of the day. I just got such a good feeling from them and that hasn’t changed at all.”

Suter says the building will eventually be torn down. Roughly 180 students will move to Fultonvale next year, a K-9 school with about 330 students. Colchester students have already visited Fultonvale three times this year to facilitate the transition.

Modular classrooms have been set up at Fultonvale to accommodate the influx of students, while the school will undergo a $21-million modernization scheduled to be completed in 2016.

Jessica Stiegelmar, 12, and Dayna Bauer, 11, are among the students who will be ending their run at Colchester in June. Stiegelmar has been at the school since kindergarten; her two sisters and grandmother were former students. Bauer joined Colchester in Grade 2.

The two Grade 6 students say they’re sad to see the school shutting down.

“I’m not happy about it because I feel when we move to Fultonvale, we might lose the kindness and that warm home feeling,” Stiegelmar says.

Bauer says she’ll miss the fun activities such as Grade 6 students being elected principal for the day. The most recently appointed principal issued a no-homework weekend.

It’s that sense of kindness and community that ultimately makes Colchester stand out, Stiegelmar says.

“When I go to other schools, I don’t feel at home and comfortable. I feel like an outsider. It’s like a second home here.”