An old school beacon

Renovation launches Silverton’s architectural landmark toward future

Silverton School science teacher Kevin deKay, shows details in a rock to student Ernesto Saldanos, 14, in the renovated lab room. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Silverton School science teacher Kevin deKay, shows details in a rock to student Ernesto Saldanos, 14, in the renovated lab room.

Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child.

But she’s never been to Silverton, where, on Friday, educators, townspeople and students celebrated the remarkable renovation of the historic Silverton School building – an endeavor that took not only the unflagging support of “the village,” but about three years, almost $12 million dollars, and educators’ endless improvisation.

Kim White, principal and superintendent of Silverton School, said, “We’re just thrilled. I feel like we’ve been able to restore and preserve the school building for the next hundred years.”

The story of Silverton School’s continued existence, like that of its renovation, is a unique testament to Silverton’s history and the tenacity of its sparse population in the face of privation.

First built in 1911, Silverton School has remained open, educating every generation of Silvertonians, despite declining enrollment numbers that repeatedly threatened its closure. Today, it serves 65 students in grades K-12 and, as the only school in San Juan County, performs a vital public function.

Paul Zimmerman, president of the Silverton School Board, said the building was also an architectural landmark.

“Without a school, you never have a true community, and for the town of Silverton, the Silverton School building is just huge,” he said.

The Ice Age

For decades, its was common knowledge that Silverton School building needed maintenance. But the issue was forced in December 2008, when the coal boiler in the century-old school building broke down – no small inconvenience in a town that regularly sees temperatures of -20 degrees Fahrenheit during winter.

“They had an interesting winter,” said Zimmerman, who has two children at the school. “We were eventually able to maintain the school temperature at about 65 by shutting down the gym and basically putting in a whole bunch of electric heaters, donated by Durango Power. But our energy costs increased drastically.”

As administrators scrambled to locate space heaters, teachers and students sallied on, in bitterly cold classrooms, wearing coats, hats, gloves and coats. Contemporary news accounts ran photographs of Silverton students swathed in so many down layers they appeared like rather miserable-looking mummies.

No money, more problems

While the broken heating system amounted to an emergency, the building’s problems extended far beyond that.

According to the Colorado Department of Education, Silverton School ranked in the top 10 percent of neediest schools in the state by critical health and safety standards.

“There were a 110 code deficiencies, and we weren’t compliant on any health and safety issue – except for the building’s student capacity,” White said.

Revamping the school would require $11.8 million – a large sum in any context, an enormous one in a recession. White said the renovation would have been impossible were it not for the support of public institutions and the community, noting that the lion’s share of the renovation’s funding came from the state’s BEST program (Building Excellent Schools Today), which contributed $9.6 million.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs ponied up $200,000 for the removal of all asbestos. The district chipped in $450,000 that had been earmarked for a new boiler. Through a mill levy increase, San Juan County’s taxpayers contributed $1.2 million. The Colorado Historical Society gave $342,000, which allowed for the restoration of the school building’s brick exterior.

As more than 100 contractors worked on the school building, the teachers and students moved into two modular buildings.

“I think, from the staff standpoint, being in the modular for two years was awful, since they were obviously dealing with a third of the space,” Zimmerman said.

Teacher Sallie Barney said without a gym, elementary students “just literally didn’t have any space to run around. We could really notice the effects of lack of physical exertion on learning.”

Amazement

“It’s still blowing me away what we got done,” Zimmerman said.

Now, Silverton School – poised to become the first in Southwest Colorado to achieve LEED School-Gold certification – is a beacon. It has a new gym, performing arts center, state-of-the-art technologies in every classroom, bathrooms on every floor and a modern alarm system.

The heating system has been overhauled.

School board member and secretary Dan Salazar said, “Boy, it’s fun and energizing to just go in to the renovated building and walk around, to enjoy the space and see how fabulous it is.”

White echoed Salazar’s amazement: “Now we’re in a safe, healthy space that is technologically competitive with any school in the state. It’s just filled with light.” she said.

For Barney, Silverton School’s renovation lends meaning to Silverton itself: “It’s really an example of what education in America can be: a centerpiece of our community. The students are really proud of it, of their education. And as educators in the U.S., that’s what we should be striving for. We don’t need kids cooped up in cinder-block schools. We can invest – in beauty, in education, in our future. Hopefully other people will see that building and think, ‘Look, that’s the kind of place, the kind of civic commitment, I want to live.’”

Hillary Clinton would approve.

cmcallister@durangoherald.com