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End of an era at John Robson school

John Robson elementary principal Karen Catherwood and secretary Kim Smith will be sad to leave behind the compass/alphabet ring built into the floor of kindergarten teacher Mimi Carillo’s classroom when the 1928 school is torn down to make way for a new middle school. Students and staff will be moving to the new Qayqayt elementary in September. Smith has worked at Robson for 28 years as a special education assistant, a librarian and a secretary while Catherwood has been principal for four years.   - Grant Granger/NewsLeader
John Robson elementary principal Karen Catherwood and secretary Kim Smith will be sad to leave behind the compass/alphabet ring built into the floor of kindergarten teacher Mimi Carillo’s classroom when the 1928 school is torn down to make way for a new middle school. Students and staff will be moving to the new Qayqayt elementary in September. Smith has worked at Robson for 28 years as a special education assistant, a librarian and a secretary while Catherwood has been principal for four years.
— image credit: Grant Granger/NewsLeader

When Kim Smith joined the New Westminster school district everyone told her, “don’t go to John Robson Elementary.”

“It’s too tough,” they said.

“You won’t last,” they warned her.

But 28 years ago the district assigned her to Robson. And she’s still there. And it turns out she’ll outlast the school.

Robson is on its deathbed. This summer, it will be demolished to make way for Fraser River Middle School. The official groundbreaking was Thursday, but work began during spring break so it can be open in time for the 2015-16 school year. Robson’s students will move to the new Qayqayt Elementary, scheduled to open its doors in September.

According to local historian Archie Miller, the Robson building was constructed in 1928 to serve as the annex to the original T.J. Trapp Technical school next door. Trapp had been renovated from a jail to a school in 1919. When it was torn down, the annex became Trapp Tech.

The original John Robson elementary was where the Royal Towers is now at Sixth Street and Royal Avenue. It later moved to Queen’s Avenue across from Olivet Baptist Church.

In 1955, Trapp closed when New Westminster secondary came along and the John Robson name migrated down the block to its current Eighth Street location.

Smith was the school’s only special education assistant when she started. Its students were notorious for bad behaviour.

To her, though, it felt like home. “This is where I felt I could affect the most change. I could make a difference here.”

The school was just a few blocks from a SkyTrain station infamous for its underground drug trade. Custodians used to comb Robson’s grounds daily for discarded needles. But a concentrated community, city and police effort has dramatically reduced that problem. Smith figures they haven’t found a needle on school grounds for six to eight years.

“The attitude for the school is so different. It’s so positive,” says Smith. “We’ve become such a community.”

Community is a word that keeps popping up. She says Robson has benefited from being a community school. Its breakfast club has been valuable to keeping kids engaged. Day care and after-school care have helped as well. Parent and community support has been excellent.

“There are just so many more pieces for school life for the children,” says Smith.

She has gone from being an EA to library assistant to school secretary. The repository of student names in her brain is voluminous.  A few years ago, Smith was at her desk when a man walked down the hallway with his four-year-old son in tow. “Mrs. Smith, you’re still here!”

He was in Grade 7 and a terror for teachers when Smith arrived at Robson. His home life was difficult and nobody cared. But Smith cared. He was assigned to her and she worked on getting him on track. Now, she says, he’s an engineer working in Paris.

“He thanked me for being there for him,” Smith says. “That blew me away that he remembered me and I had made a difference. I cried when I saw him.”

The building oozes memories.

Mimi Camillo’s kindergarten classroom has a compass painted on its floor. Around it is a ring with all the letters of the alphabet. When former students visit they tell their offspring they always sat on one letter. It’s a tradition that continues today.

Robson exteriorMemories and big classrooms are what’s good about Robson. But its best days are long gone. The hall floors creak. So do the red linoleum-covered stairs. There’s a lonely grey step on the basement staircase that staff and students won’t step on because it might bring bad luck.

Critters constantly crawl out of the woodwork. A squirrel recently fell out of the ceiling. Smith and principal Karen Catherwood fall over themselves laughing as they describe “squirrel herding.”

“We were chasing it down the hall, wrangling it and we chased it out. The next thing we knew he was back in again. There are lots of holes critters can get into,” says Catherwood.

Then there’s the river that runs through Robson. At the end of the basement hallway is what appears to be a cupboard. It’s actually a door that provides access to some pipes. But underneath the plumbing is a trickle of water running along the wall that looks like an underground creek. It runs between the foundation and a humungous unremovable rock the school was built around because it was so big.

‘We’ve outgrown it’

Many think the attic is haunted. But maybe that’s because former principal Drew Knox took students up there to read them ghost stories. Now anyone going up there is liable to fall through.

When Smith started at Robson it had 10 divisions. Now it has 21 with 500 students, many of them housed in portables. It’s so crowded that on Wednesday afternoons five teachers trip over each other as their classes use the resource room.

“We’ve outgrown it. Things are going to fall apart. We can’t even plug anything else in or we’ll lose power,” says Smith. “It’s big, but it’s really old.”

She’s looking forward to having a first-aid room. These days she plops students in the chair next to her desk to deal with scrapes, scratches and other minor ailments. The staff is particularly excited about the bright natural light the new school will have.

Not all of Robson will disappear. Catherwood is busy taking inventory of everything not nailed down. She has to figure out what can go with them. Qayqayt is a replacement school. That means the capital contribution from the Ministry of Education does not include furniture, office equipment and supplies. The middle school will be new to the district so will have those accessories included.

“I think we’re all a little overwhelmed by things. There’s still a job to do,” says Catherwood.

“This area deserves a new school.”

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