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Reflecting Fondly on Birch River School

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It’s the end of an era in Birch River, an era of local education that goes back as far as 1931 when the first school was built in the community of Birch River.
The northernmost school in the Swan Valley School Division – Birch River School – has wrapped up the school year for the last time since the building was first opened in 1960, which started primarily as a Senior High School and later transitioned to solely an elementary school after the regional high school was built in Swan River in 1972.
The 25 students that remained at Birch River School vacated the hallways for the last time on Tuesday (June 25), allowing staff and administrators to make the physical transition of their assets to Bowsman School and wherever else they might be moving on to next year. Those numbers have steadily diminished over the decades since the mid-1970s when student enrollment was as high as 220.
In fact, even though the high school-aged students were being sent to Swan River, the population of the school still warranted an expansion, which was finished in 1974.
According to a memoire compiled by Dorothy Sadler in Boots, Buggies and Buses, “There was definitely more need for space when the second half of the present school (old High School) was built. The new addition had an open area large enough for (four) classrooms and a spacious modern gymnasium.”
The open concept was phased out in 1985-86 when walls were constructed around the classrooms in the open area.
Sadler also highlights Birch River School as being the first school in the province to be networked, during the late ‘80s when IBM donated 20 computers to the school.
“The students raised $1,200 to install the lab,” Sadler wrote. “Having computers for the students in the school was a most significant change in the school’s history.”
Even though it would be appropriate to grieve the history and memories that took place inside the hallowed halls of Birch River School, last week was a time to celebrate the 59 years spent together in the school. On Wednesday evening (June 26), Birch River School hosted a final farewell barbecue, where a gymnasium full of past students and staff both young and old were able to visit, explore the schools and reminisce on days-gone-by.
The following is a sampling of some of the reflections that were shared from some of the people of Birch River School’s past:
Brenna Smith
Teacher and Principal – 2011-19
“It was eight years ago that I moved to Swan River, not knowing anything about the community that I was getting into,” said Smith. “Over the past eight years, I have worked with some incredible people and met some amazing students.
“My positions have changed over the years from being a music teacher, to a homeroom, and a principal. I remember stepping into the school for the first time and being told that my office was upstairs. I couldn’t find it until I realized that upstairs was up two steps, but I now call it upstairs too.
“I have fond memories of lots of trips we took with students to Winnipeg, Yorkton, Brandon, and Swan River,” Smith continued.

Susan Cowan
Teacher and Principal – 1998-2009
“I was very fortunate to have been in this building for 11 years and interacted with students, staff, parents and community members for many years,” said Cowan.
“Going back further than that, 35 years ago, when I was in high school, I would meet the wonderful students from Birch River and Mafeking. You could tell back then that it was a tight-knit group who were considerate of each other even when they were teasing each other.
“When I was a new principal that didn’t know what to do, (past secretary) Stella (Chmelowski) would just hand me things and say ‘sign this’,” Cowan continued. “It was great. And I know from other principals that that was the way things were. She passed that on to (current secretary) Gail (Rowe).
“Thinking about this building, if it could write it’s own book, it would be a world best seller. It would put a smile on your face, it would bring a tear to your eye and a warm feeling in your heart. Thank you Birch River School for all the memories.”
Rick Wowchuk
Teacher – 1982-1990
Wowchuk shared many stories of his time in Birch River, with a lot of memories of school activities that perhaps would be frowned upon in a modern school system.
“I remember one time we made rocket fuel, and I had to stop by the science lab to check if there was still a black patch on the ceiling from where the rocket took off.”
Wowchuk also shared how there were a lot of friendships formed between the people who attended and worked at that school.
“The friendships built there just seems to be forever,” he said.
Chae Tucker
Grade 6 student
“Something I remember is the end of the year trip with Mrs. Peterson,” said Tucker in a letter read by Smith. “We went to Regina, played laser tag and watched a movie.
“Part of what I am going to miss about this school is that it is my only school and my second home. It is always going to be a part of me and part of my childhood.”
Jake Warkentin
Principal – 1982-85
Teacher prior
While Jake Warkentin and his wife, Betty, were not able to personally attend the gathering, he was able to share a few memories in a letter delivered by Smith.
His letter opened by stating how difficult it was to share only a few memories when many were flooding his mind.
“Mr. Lamb retired in 1980 and felt I was ready to take his place,” said Warkentin. “I asked him for some advice and the best advice he said he could give me was, ‘When you leave the school at night, lock the door, and forget about school until the next day.’ Good advice...not easy to follow! I did learn a few things before moving on in 1985.
“I learned that the real boss of a school is really the secretary. Mrs. Stella Chmelowski patiently trained me each time I walked into the office. She knew the bottom line of the budget, where to order materials for the best prices, the names of each parent, which teachers I needed to stroke or push and where to look for stuff in the filing cabinets. She knew it all. She actually made me look good.
“I learned that when you treat staff and students fairly, they will usually reciprocate,” Warkentin continued. “I worked with some incredible professionals who I would trust to draw the best out of students. We had many discussions on how we could improve what we were doing. I can also say I considered them my friends.
“This day brings back so many rich memories for me. I hope the same is true for you. It is the end of another era. Enjoy the moments to reflect on what you remember... that had an impact on your life at this great place – the Birch River School.”
Laurie Evans
SVSD Board Chair and Trustee
“When I joined the board more than four years ago, I had no idea that I would be faced with these tough decisions,” said Evans. “Tonight is a night to celebrate almost 60 years in this building, and hear everybody’s stories about their experiences here.”
Evans shared her first impressions of the school, back when she was a student in Minitonas. Often, athletics would be the reason to make the trip up to Birch River, when the Minitonas Mustangs would play against the Birch River Colts.
“Now that the closure is official, as a board we are certainly going to do our best to help any group or individual who is able to find a new purpose for this building. We know that it is important to this community, and it is important to us.”
Stella Chmelowski
Secretary – 1975-2007
Smith introduced the last scheduled speech of the evening as being from ‘a very important person’.
“For most people, it’s the person who has all the answers and is our go-to person,” she said. “For the parents, it’s the person that they normally speak to first. That person is the secretary.”
As long-time secretary Stella Chmelowski walked up to the microphone, she was greeted by a standing ovation.
Chmelowski shared numerous stories about time at the school and the legacy that has been left.
“It’s a sad day when a school has to close,” she said. “I’ve made long-lasting friends, and Birch River School will always be home.”

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Jeremy Bergen
REPORTER
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