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From school to campus

Sir John high school ushers in a new era

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 02/01) - A thick wall of grungy guitar and smashing drums bounced through the gymnasium and into the ears of students gathered to cheer on their volleyball heroes at Sir John Franklin high school's "Spike It 2001" pep rally last Friday.

NNSL photo

Student DJs, from left, St. Pat's guest Jason Fletcher, Chris Wong, Suzanne McAastocker and, in front, Ben Westergreen liven up the house with some DJ beats. - photo courtesy of Yellowknife District No.1

School pride was buoyed even further when "Shamrock," guised as a St. Patrick High sentinel, was banished from the rally by the school's mascot, the Sir John Falcon, as students noisily cheered.

The band, a nervous group of Grade 9 boys going by the name President's Choice, seemed to relax somewhat as the rally went on. As each of the school's volleyball squads hit the stage, the group rallied them on with overtures of happy, campy punk rock beats.

Why not? It was the weekend before Halloween. There were hula dancers, goblins and mad scientists. One student dressed as a carrot -- it was the perfect day to stick one's neck out.

"We're trying to get the school more involved in student activities," said student council president Danielle Walsh the day before, as she and other graduating students carved pumpkins to give to the Avens Centre and Stanton Regional Hospital.

"Our attitude has improved and we're very proud of it."

It is a point reiterated by Al McDonald, a social studies teacher and assistant principal.

"One of things that have come along over the last five years is the student voice," says McDonald, who has been with the school for 21 years.

Student council has taken its own initiative in co-ordinating and raising money for school festivities, even raising money for victims of September's terrorist attack in New York.

"I moved here from Hay River two years ago," says Grade 10 student Andrea Larocque. "I didn't know anybody or had any friends, so I joined SADD (Students Against Driving Drunk). It's a great program because you do a lot of fundraising and get to go on trips."

The pep rally in the gym last Friday was itself was a student initiative, says principal Meika Cameron.

"The student leadership has moved very clearly from being a popularity contest to one where they are saying, 'I understand full well the priorities I have,' " says Cameron.

Indeed, the school has come a long way since first opening its doors as a two-storey, six-classroom school in 1957. The brick and mortar shell that covers many schools built across Canada during the '50s and '60s has been shed from Sir John for the most part.

Today, at least inside, the school resembles a university campus more than a high school.

Students gather at the canteen for burgers and chips during lunch. Break-out areas -- where students can relax, read a book, or chat with classmates -- occupy every nook and cranny within the school.

Beginning in January 1999, Sir John underwent a $13-million renovation project, completed earlier this year. The school plaza rises impressively to an arched ceiling, allowing natural light to filter through to the floor.

The new careers and technology wing provides students with fully functional video and audio recording studios, and classrooms for media, tourism and legal studies.

"At our school the sky is the limit," Cameron beams. "The students immediately understood that something very big was going to happen."

Italian exchange student Laura Maniga says she was surprised at the freedom of choices made available to students at Sir John.

"It is very different here," she says. "In Italy we can't choose the subject, but here I think it is more organized."

Grade 12 student Gord Stephenson takes Sir John's new campus in stride. His experience at the school also reminds him of the road ahead.

"It's scary because you realize that you're moving on to the next stage of your life," says Stephenson. "But if you get good grades you're OK -- and you're teased less for getting good grades (compared with middle school)."