As Cyril Varney slated for closure, students, staff reflect on unique Sudbury school

Citing declining enrolment, a shrinking population base and approximately $5 million in upgrades, the Rainbow District School Board will be permanently shuttering the doors to Cyril Varney elementary school at the end of the academic year.

School won accolades from architects for its modern, open-concept design

Cyril Varney elementary school will be closing down at the end of the 2021/22 school year. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Citing declining enrolment, a shrinking population base and approximately $5 million in upgrades, the Rainbow District School Board will be permanently shuttering the doors to Cyril Varney elementary school at the end of the academic year.

The school, named after a longtime school board trustee Cyril "Cy" Varney, was deemed too expensive to upgrade in a 2016 accommodation review report from the board. 

Construction on the open concept learning environment began in 1966, and the first students took their seats in 1967. The building – which architect Arthur Peach said earned his firm Sawchuk & Peach numerous accolades from industry peers – was unique because of its spoke-style shape, and the collaborative, walls-free atmosphere it fostered.

"The kids learned together and played together," Peach said. "They're not isolated in a class with a certain teacher. There's conversations going on. Often, in conventional teaching, silence is the main thing. Please be quiet. Listen to the teacher. No feedback."

Architect Arthur Peach estimates this photo was taken between 1967-69, following the completion of Cyril Varney School. (Submitted by Arthur Peach)

Although he doesn't recalls who originally brought up the idea of open concept learning– a similar design was used at the elementary school in Dowling – Peach said it was a "bright light of an idea."

"The kids have to enjoy teaching the learning process, have to be familiar and comfortable with peers and chat with them."

To that end, the school featured skylights over a meeting place in the centre of the building, resembling a "town square," Peach said. 

One of the other noticeable additions to the school was a cement turtle sitting near the entrance. It became, as current vice-principal Catherine Norrie said, an "iconic" feature of the school.

Architect Arthur Peach was one of the principal designers of Cyril Varney school, which at the time of its construction garnered accolades from industry peers. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

"When people talk about Cyril Varney, that's one of the first things they ask, is the turtle still there?" Norrie said.

Peach said he didn't recall why they picked the turtle, but in later years, the choice seemed inspirational.

"When we thought about it, it occurred to us.that the turtle was an inspiration," he said. "The Indigenous people call the world Turtle Island. And whether we connected that at the time. I can't say."

"But it was an interesting kind of confluence of societies, and I hope that it would have brought the kids attention to the Turtle Island concept, what their forebears in North America thought the extent of the world was."

Cyril Varney's turtle is an 'iconic' cement sculpture first placed outside the school at its construction in 1966. Shown at left, standing, is vice-principal Cathy Norrie (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Norrie, who has worked at Cyril Varney for 21 years, said she planned on having the students etch their names into the turtle statue, so that they can be commemorated as the last class before the turtle finds a new home at a different location.

Catherine Leslie, one of the first teachers at Varney, said when the school was first built, it had a modern feel to it. The staff, also, was young and energetic, which made it a "fantastic" place to work.

"It was great," she said. "All the staff were young, and we couldn't wait to get into the staff room on Mondays to find out what everybody had done on the weekends."

"It was certainly different from some of the schools that I practice taught in."

Class photo from Cyril Varney School in 1974. (Submitted by Mona Felber McKee)

But being a new neighbourhood, the population was smaller, and the students were sometimes drawn from neighbouring communities like Garson and Falconbridge, which made winter traveling precarious. 

"I can remember going out one morning to get in the car to go to work, and I couldn't find my car because there was so much snow," she said. "I ended up basically hitchhiking to the school."

"There was only one lane open on Falconbridge Road. The rest of it was totally blocked with snow," she said. "In those days, there were no school buses, so a lot of the kids ended up being brought in by snowmobile."

Mona Felber McKee, who also attended Cyril Varney – and was a student of Leslie's – said the open concept of the school made it feel comfortable and relaxed.

"But also for me as a student, it was really distracting because I was kind of a hyper person," Felber McKee said. "And any time somebody would walk by or you would look to see what's going on in the other classroom, it was distracting."

"Very different from what it is today."

The public can wander the halls of Cyril Varney school June 9 between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., when the board will offer an open house. The board said they haven't determined the future of the building yet, but is expected to make a decision in the coming months.

With files from Casey Stranges and Morning North


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