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New private school prepares to open in fall at former SCITS building

A Toronto-based development group intends to open a private elementary school – and possibly a private high school – this September in the former SCITS building.

The new school, known as the Royal SCITS Academy (RSA), held an open house Saturday to show off interior work already completed in the building’s west end.

Dozens of parents, potential students, SCITS alumni, politicians and curious residents walked the halls for the first time in years.

Wayne Burley, a retired Lambton Kent District School Board (LKDSB) maintenance worker, was there with his camera. 

“It looks better than when I worked here,” said Burley who spent the 1990s at SCITS.

“This is a solid building,” he said. “I’m glad to see it with a new coat of paint and looking so good.”

The former public high school played a central role in Burley’s life. Not only did he work there, his wife, her sister, and his kids were all students at some point in the school’s long history.

“This is a very exciting day for the ownership group,” said RSA school director Jamie Gallacher as he toured people through the renovated portion of the 200,000-square-foot building.

“We want Royal SCITS Academy to be a big part of the community because this building has played such an important part for 100 years,” he said.

SCITS opened on Wellington Street in 1922 and was closed by the LKDSB in 2019 when its students were amalgamated with those attending St. Clair Secondary School (now Great Lakes SS).

Toronto developer Rakesh Gupta bought the 9.2-acre property in September 2021 and initially attempted to redevelop it as a daycare centre and a school for international students. In 2022, it was marketed as Royal Wellington Lofts and offered dorms to college students. However, none ever moved in.

Gallacher said the developer realized last year that the international market may not be stable.  That was confirmed in January when the federal government limited the number of international students allowed into Canada.

The focus is now on a private elementary school, then a private high school if enrollment numbers are high enough, said Gallacher.

Ten classrooms closest to the school cafeteria are ready for use with new lighting, new paint, new HVAC, new ceiling tiles, and some new wiring, said RSA co-director Mohit Gupta. 

“Everyone who sees the building in person is quite impressed,” he said. “I got goose bumps the first time I came in here. It’s such a special building. I have a lot of love for it.”

He said his company has “invested quite a bit,” but would not say how much was spent to bring the building up to code, then obtain provincial approval to operate as a school.

“The important thing is that we want to bring this building back to the community,” said Gupta.  “This is a very unique project.”

RSA students will have the benefit of small class sizes, an athletics program and teachers trained to address mental health and behavioural issues, said Gallacher.

Annual tuition will be $10,500 - $11,000 per student – less for families with more than one child enrolled.

“Royal SCITS Academy will be the most affordable private school in the country,” said Gallacher, a Sarnia resident also affiliated with GallaDev’s Soccer Academy, billed as Lambton County’s only competitive youth soccer league.

He said RSA is accepting student applications for September and the school has already received interest from local families as well as from across Ontario and internationally.

It’s possible a portion of the building will offer dormitories for out-of-town students but they weren’t on display Saturday, he said.

Gallacher said phase two of the renovation has started but won’t be complete until next winter.  It involves SCITS’ former “tech alley” where the shop classrooms used to be.

The original portion of the school, which includes an 850-seat auditorium, is not renovated and was not open to the public on Saturday. The auditorium is the only feature that does not meet the fire code, said Gupta. “We’ll do that down the road.”

When LKDSB trustees voted to close SCITS, they cited the estimated $5-million cost of asbestos remediation as part of the reason.

Gupta said Saturday that his company has “remediated any points of concern with asbestos.

“We also have an asbestos management program with yearly inspections,” he added. “The building is in compliance with the occupancy permit issued by the city.”

Candice Richards, an LKDSB teacher in Wallaceburg and a SCITS graduate, attended Saturday’s open house and said she is grateful the new owners are using the SCITS name again.

Richards said her family has close ties to the building and she wanted to see if it was being maintained. 

“My grandfather came as a student to SCITS the day it opened. My father graduated from here and later designed the gym (addition) and the elevator,” she said. “My mom, my sister and I also came here, so I am very glad the SCITS name is being honoured.

“It means so much to me and many others in the community.”

She said she’s happy that the building has not been left vacant and that “someone is looking after it.”

“I do wonder about private schools in our area but they do well in larger centres and there is one in Wallaceburg,” Richards said. “I certainly hope it works out.”