In January of 1957 the South River and Sundridge school boards met with the goal of creating a shared high school facility. They formed the South River-Sundridge High School District school board. In April of 1957 the newly formed board purchased 47 acres of land for $1,400 in an area located between the two towns.
Construction began on a new high school in the summer of 1958. It opened in January of 1959. During the first school year there were 144 students taught by eight teachers.
In January of 1966 the South River-Sundridge School Board united with the Powassan District High School Board to form the East Parry Sound District School Board. The school was expanded beginning in November of 1966 and the work was completed in 1967. The new addition brought the school’s enrollment up from 230 from the prior year to 571 students by Sept. of 1967.
The school was officially opened on December 4, 1968 by the Honorable William G. Davis, Minister of Education at the time. The school received its new name – “Almaguin Highlands Secondary School” (AHSS). The name being a combination of the words, “Algonquin” and “Magnetewan”. It was chosen from a list of prospective school names submitted during a contest.
By 1968 there were 750 students attending the school. In September of 1969 the Powassan Continuation School became a senior elementary school. The students and staff were transferred to Almaguin. This meant more renovations to the school were required.
With construction taking place continuously, the school implemented a split school day. This allowed workers to complete construction with minimal disruptions. In 1969 classes were split into two parts where one group of students would attend from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. and the other group would attend from noon until 5:30 p.m.
In September 1970, with the expansion work completed, the Burks Falls High School joined Almaguin Highlands Secondary School. The new addition included a second gymnasium, cafeteria extension, a specialty lecture room, and open concept commercial and special education areas.
Between 1966 and 1970 the student body went from 230 to 1,225 and the teaching staff went from 17 to 77.
One of the teaching staff was a man named Peter Camani (now retired). Camani began teaching art at Almaguin Highlands in 1973. He’s known for creating The Screaming Heads. It can be found on the Ontario Abandoned Places website.
After students from the Burk’s Falls area joined AHSS, principal, John McDermott, implemented a change that would bring a sense of community to the school. He gave the school hallways Highland names like Glencairn, Inverness, Tobermorie, Balmoral and Argyle. Students were registered in clans and competed against other clans in the school. This helped raise school spirit. The new AHSS school has since brought back these ‘clans’.
The school’s winter carnival was popular with students. Events included making snow sculptures, walking on the plank as a group, snow soccer, tug of war, Jello eating contest, Much Music video dance party and staff vs. student hockey. Do these events exist any more?
The aging school began to have asbestos issues and the building required several costly repairs. In 2008 the Village of Burks Falls commissioned Bertrand, Hill, Wheeler Architecture Inc. and Theatre Consulting Ltd. to complete a feasibility study for a new school. School board trustees voted to close the aging high school at the end of the 2010 school year.
A new school was constructed beginning in early 2010 and was completed in time for the September 2011 school year. On October 9th, 2011 an auction was conducted to sell of remaining property inside the high school. Auctioneer Ernie Schellenberg spent several hours auctioning off various items.
The new school still required a soccer field which meant that students were bused over to the old school for track and field until 2015.
The old school sat vacant for several years. In the spring of 2014 the Near North District School Board voted to demolish the building. It had been costing them $132,000 to operate the vacant building between 2012 and 2013.
In June 2014 a buyer came forward to purchase the property. This was met with relief by the Near North District School Board as the projected cost of demolishing the building was put at over $1 million.
Despite being purchased by a buyer, the school remained inactive. Attempts were made to board entry points but over time considerable damage was done to the school. This included graffiti, smashing most every pane of glass and setting off fire extinguishers.
I don’t know what the plans are for the old property. I was in contact with a young man whose father owned the property. They expressed frustration at the ongoing vandalism and efforts to keep trespassers out.
The East Parry Sound District School Board dedicated the new school’s gymnasium/auditorium in John McDermott’s name.