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District studies potential closure of seven elementary schools

Oct 09, 2023 03:44PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

When walking near a public elementary school in Salt Lake City, one might notice signs advocating to “Keep Wasatch Elementary open!” or the names of any one of the seven public elementary schools that are up for further study and potential closure in the Salt Lake City School District (SLCSD). 

“Parents and community members can be powerful allies in helping think through complicated questions and identifying blind spots,” said Joey McNamee, a mother and school community council (SCC) chair for Emerson Elementary, at a school board meeting in early September. “We're experts in our neighborhoods and on our kids. Our involvement could improve the final recommendation for all students. We just need a chance to engage.”

Brian Conley, director of Boundary and Planning, gave an update at the board meeting on how and why these seven selected schools are up for further study in the District's potential closure of several public elementary schools. Parents and faculty came wielding posters in protest to hear the committee’s reasons for what they argue are preposterous attempts at unnecessarily dismantling the lives of young students and their families.

Emerson, Hawthorne, M. Lynn Bennion, Newman, Jackson, Riley and Wasatch elementaries are the seven schools the Boundary Options Committee (BOC) have brought forth for “further study.” 

“These are for further study, not for closure, but for further study,” Conley said. Meaning the schools are not under any closure sanctions yet as the committee is still analyzing data and feedback to determine the best course of action for how to consolidate schools with the decreasing enrollment patterns experienced in the city.

The Numbers

In 1963, there were 39,000 students enrolled in SLCSD, in 1978-79 enrollment dropped to 23,909. Thirty-two schools were closed between 1964 and 1979 in response to the declining enrollment numbers, some reopening in new locations. 

“That’s what we had to do as a District because we couldn’t keep enough schools for 39,000 students when we only needed to have enough for eventually 23,000,” Conley said.  

In 2021-22, there were 20,708 students enrolled. Currently, there are 19,700 enrolled.

“K-6 enrollment dropped 3,800 students in eight years. This represents more than a 28% decline. However, the District has maintained the same number of elementary schools,” Conley said. “So our declining student population is an indicator that action is needed.” 

The BOC attributes the drop in enrollment to declining birth rates in generational patterns, millennials, much less Gen Z, having fewer children than any other generation. “Recent data indicates that we’re going to continue being an aging population in Salt Lake City,” Conley said. “We are not getting younger as a city, we are getting more experienced as a city.” 

Parents, Faculty Speak Out

Parents and faculty were given an opportunity to speak before the Board ahead of Conley to make their cases to keep their respective schools open. Some shed tears or proclaimed their desires while making their 3-minute cases. 

Julie Miller served in SLCSD for 36 years as both a special educator and principal of four different schools. She hopes the Board “will not pit schools against one another or place voices of well-resourced communities in opposition to any other neighborhood.” Recognizing the integrated arts program at Wasatch Elementary “adds value and resources to the District, not siphon that value away.” 

Mother, pediatric oncology nurse and Wasatch Elementary PTA Vice President Rai Doty specifically sought out that arts program for her first grader despite having to drive 40 miles round trip to get her daughter to her choice school. Which, she said, “has everything to do with the incredible staff and teachers and the community that Wasatch has built that is now at risk for being lost.” She contested the school’s lack of walkability, encouraging board members to “meet the community that your considerations threaten before making any decisions.” 

The Children Services Program Director at Odyssey House, Jaime Boone, shared the imperative and irreplaceable role Wasatch Elementary has in serving children and families of her nonprofit organization. “They understand the children that come from Odyssey House need trauma informed care. The children from Odyssey House feel safe and trust their teachers. If you take that away from them, we'll be breaking that trust.” She advocates this goes beyond the children to their especially vulnerable parents, too. Boone said Wasatch offers so much stability in their unstable lives that “a new relationship with a school will take years to develop. It isn’t something that can happen overnight. That level of trust and commitment and communication takes time.” 

McNamee, the school community council chair for Emerson Elementary, has been an outspoken school advocate throughout this whole process, looking for transparency from the Board and BOC. “We want to see the rubric showing each school and its score based on those factors,” she said. 

BOC Recommends Further Study

Following public comments, Conley gave a presentation clarifying how the BOC came to the recommendations for further study on those seven schools and what things will look like going forward. 

The BOC initially used a list of 16 considerations to evaluate the 27 schools in the District to see where consolidation can be made. Those 16 considerations are: community input, community and neighborhood identity, demographics, environmental factors, facility capacity and design, federal, state or court mandates, financial implications, geographic features of the District, school designations, school enrollment data, school feeder patterns, special programs, special program facilities, student educational opportunities and academic performance, student safety and transportation. The BOC came to the recommendations by evaluating this data, considering community feedback and created a holistic assessment of schools. 

Community Learning Centers, building age, capacity and learning environment conditions, school enrollment in general, education programs, neighborhood student population and major thoroughfares and geographic features that limit movement of students to nearby schools were distinguishing features that led to deeper discussion. 

“Some of that data we went over, it’s anecdotal. It’s how people feel. It's what people experienced. It's what they were thinking on a school level or a personal level. And some of it was hard data, looking at numbers,” Conley said. “We tried to create a holistic assessment of schools so we’d know which ones we’d want to bring to you for further study.” 

Conley acknowledges they want to right-size schools, establishing school boundaries that support a neighborhood student population at each elementary school that allows an average of three general education teachers per grade. Arguing that right-sizing the schools will increase in-school choices for students and families, provide effective collaboration structures for teachers, allow for special school programs in all schools and District programs, minimize split classes and increase efficiency and effectiveness with financial resources like taxpayer dollars. 

Looking at the buildings, for example, can determine what kind of investment will be needed, what challenges and concerns could arise from older buildings in a contemporary, evolving world of education. 

“A school that is less than 20 years old is built for the way we see school happening now rather than what was happening in 1975,” Conley said. “We know that there’s more online use, we know that there’s more need for electrical outlets. That’s part of what we’re looking at and what we want to further study.” 

The Seven Schools On The Study List

Conley listed the tenets for each school as to why they were specifically chosen for further study. 

Emerson Elementary is among the District’s oldest buildings and is among the lowest general education enrollment and residential student population. There’s poor natural light, there are ADA challenges on campus, a limited number of classrooms, there’s proximity to nearby schools as alternative sites and limited on-site parking. 

Hawthorne Elementary is among the District’s oldest buildings, among the lowest for general education enrollment and residential student population, has a limited number of classrooms, it’s adjacent to a major thoroughfare (700 East), it has a small campus footprint and there is proximity to nearby schools as alternative sites. 

M. Lynn Bennion Elementary is among the District’s oldest buildings and among the lowest for general education enrollment and residential student population. “We know that's Central City area. We have a lot of people, we just don't have a lot of 5 to 12 year olds that live right there,” Conley said. There is only one classroom per grade level in six of the seven grades, meaning “when you put your second grader in that school, they are going to be with the same students for the next five years. And no choice of teacher.” The school is near major thoroughfares (400 South and 700 East), with a small campus footprint and the on-site parking is limited. 

Newman Elementary has among the lowest general education enrollment and residential student population, there is limited opportunity for future growth based on location on the District border, there is a limited number of classrooms and there is proximity to nearby schools as alternative sites. 

Jackson Elementary is among the lowest general education enrollment and residential population. There is limited opportunity for future growth based on location and the District border and “they are landlocked by a golf course to the north and a lot of industrial to the northeast side. So there was no way for housing to expand,” Conley said. The school has a limited number of classrooms and there is proximity to other nearby schools as alternative sites. “In fact, the school is directly across the street from Rose Park Elementary.” 

Riley Elementary’s general education enrollment and residential student population is amongst the lowest, it is located next to busy commuter streets that were labeled major thoroughfares, separating the school from a lot of residential students, there is limited opportunity for growth based on location to industrial development, with proximity to nearby schools as alternative sites. 

Wasatch Elementary is among the District’s oldest buildings, among the lowest in residential student population, there are ADA challenges on campus, especially with two property sites, there is poor natural lighting in classrooms, it’s located next to busy commuter streets with a small campus that has limited on-site parking. 

“This is difficult. This isn't just a math problem you can put down on paper. There are judgment calls based on what's happening because there is no one right answer except that we got to do something,” Conley said. “That image people get in their head when they hear a scorecard or weighing, that really doesn’t capture what it is.”  

After determining the seven schools, the BOC’s approach to further study consolidated those 16 initial considerations into five primary categories that represent critical principles that will guide the development of recommendations to the Board. Those five primary categories are: student enrollment and residential population, proximity and availability of neighborhood schools, building and learning environment quality, strategic placement of District-wide programs for equitable access and community input and stakeholder feedback. They will use those five categories as the lens through which they will evaluate the seven schools further, more in depth, with both qualitative and quantitative data. 

Future Meeting Dates

There are Board approved information meetings at the following times, dates and locations the community can attend.  

- Saturday, Oct. 7, 9-11 a.m. at Glendale Middle 

- Wednesday, Oct. 18, 7-9 p.m. at Northwest Middle 

- Saturday, Oct. 21, 9-11 a.m. at Franklin Elementary (this meeting will be conducted in Spanish)

- Wednesday, Oct. 25, 7-9 p.m. at Hillside Middle 

These area information meetings will be about “25% presentation and about 75% question and answer.” 

There will also be site specific meetings where people “do not need to sign up for a time to speak,” Conley said and will be located at each of the schools in question. 

In November, there will be two public comment periods during the November board meetings. Conley will provide feedback to the Board from the public information sessions. In December, the Board will hold a public hearing and the recommended options are placed on a Board discussion agenda. 

“If the Board takes action, final options are placed on the action agenda for the next board meeting. Approved changes, reconfigurations or long-term closures are implemented on a timeline specific to the needs of the affected schools and communities,” Conley said in his presentation.  

“The public hearing meetings in November and December are the opportunities to sign up and speak in front of the entire Board for community members,” Conley said.  

The meetings will be recorded and available on the Salt Lake City School Board website, including a Frequently Asked Questions page for easy access to answers.

School Board Gives Feedback

The School Board gave their feedback and asked Conley further questions. 

“A big piece I'm hearing from my community is the need for transparency,” said Board Vice President Bryce Williams. 

“I think that’s why [the public] had all these questions and these concerns,” said Precinct 2 Board member Jenny Sika.

The presentation gave the Board and community members a better understanding of the basis in which the BOC are coming from. Like how the BOC “are not the ones that are going to be providing the recommendation for the next round. They are providing information and we're going to them particularly for help with thinking about transition planning,” Conley said. “They have not been disbanded, they’re still there. We are just using their expertise in a different way going forward.” 

Most all also agreed on the importance of integrating the qualitative data, the “human piece” to all of this. “The real human element to me is the success of our elementary students and their preparedness for junior high into high school, and ultimately, their preparedness for the world,” said Board President Nate Salazar. “This is really about students and their outcomes.” 

Some warn they do not want to get in a position of condensing schools to solve one problem while creating overcrowding and a slew of other problems elsewhere. “I don't want us to cut our nose off to spite our face,” said Precinct 7 Board member Kristi Swett, “knowing the decision we make is going to make another problem in another school because it might not be big enough or it might not have all of the equitable things we want kids to have access to.”

“When urban schools are too small, research shows it can actually harm students by reducing available programming and putting stress on classrooms that are often much too big,” said Precinct 3 Board member Ashley Anderson. “And they don’t help administrators balance behavioral and educational needs.” 

  No matter what, however, Anderson said, change is inevitable for any of the 27 schools. “All schools have become smaller than typical, not just the seven on the list,” she said.

“It’s going to result in change for every school, not just whatever schools are eventually determined to be closed,” said Precinct 6 Board member Bryan Jensen.

“We want the change to either be positive, or at worst, neutral for people,” Conley said. 

“What really has to happen is that we see the change as wonderful, and it’s positive as we embrace new students, as we become a greater community because what we have gained is students, new programs, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world,” Jensen said. 

“We have our differences, yes,” said Precinct 5 Board member Mohamed Baayd. “But this is why we are a board. If we agree on everything, that is a problem. If we disagree, then we are doing our job. And that's what we are supposed to be doing to make sure that our kids are taken care of.” 

“This is a tough conversation to have for everybody involved because we know we have to do something hard and disruptive,” said Superintendent Elizabeth Grant. “The reason it's hard and disruptive is because people are connected to their schools and have created relationships in their schools. The community of teachers, together with the school leaders, have created something valuable for those families attending those schools. That is remarkable work. It makes the consideration of closure hard at any level.” λ