Enrollment in the Salt Lake City School District in the late 1950s and early 1960s reflected the post-World War II baby boom with head counts some of those years that exceeded 40,000 students in Utah’s capital city.
Flash forward to 2023 and the district’s enrollment is less than half of that, with fall enrollment expected to drop to 19,700 students, a decline that is forcing difficult conversations and decisions about school closures in the coming months.
Declining student population is “an indicator that action is needed,” Brian Conley, the school district’s boundaries and planning director, said in a recent meeting.
“That’s the one answer we know for sure, we need to do something,” he said.
Enrollment in grades K-6 has dropped by more than 3,800 students in eight years, he said.
“Keep in mind that the district has maintained the same number of elementary schools now as we did eight years ago,” he said.
Seven Salt Lake elementary schools are being studied for possible closure — Emerson, Hawthorne, M. Lynn Bennion, Mary W. Jackson, Newman, Riley and Wasatch. The elected board of education is tentatively scheduled to vote on school closures in December or early next year after a period of study and public input.
The district plans to conduct five informational meetings, two on Saturdays, during September and October. The first meeting will be conducted tonight at Bryant Middle School from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Language translation and child care will be provided at all meetings.
Over the past 39 years, the school district has closed 37 schools, 25 in the 1970s alone. Two were closed in the 1980s, including South High School, which was highly controversial. It later became one of Salt Lake Community College’s campuses.
Earlier this year, the school board voted to shutter Salt Lake Virtual Elementary School following a sharp decline in enrollment after the COVID-19 pandemic subsided and the federal funds used to establish the school had run their course.
A January 2022 report by the Phoenix-based Applied Economics consulting firm says multiple factors are contributing to the school district’s enrollment decline: gentrification, declining household sizes, an aging population and a decline in Utah’s birthrate.
Schools with declining enrollments can become candidates for closure, but other contributing factors can include a building’s age, location, campus size, availability of parking, disability access, proximity to busy streets, low general education enrollment and even a dearth of natural light in classrooms.
Julia Miller, who led Wasatch Elementary School as its principal for a decade before her retirement, said no matter how carefully the school district plans the closure process, “it’s going to be a seismic hit to the affected neighborhoods and institutional mourning ... will set in.”
Jaime Boone, children’s services program director for the addiction and mental health treatment provider Odyssey House, urged the board members to “vote with your hearts a little bit, not just the data. These kids need Wasatch, nothing else. That’s all they ask for.”
Boone said the school has had a working relationship with Odyssey House for 10 years.
Many children from Odyssey House have experienced severe trauma and need trauma-informed care, which they receive at the school, she said.
“The children from Odyssey House feel safe because we trust their teachers. If you take that away from them, we’ll be breaking that trust. We want our kids to continue to feel safe and loved,” Boone said.
Their parents need Wasatch Elementary School, too, she said.
“They trust Wasatch. They know that we have a great relationship with Wasatch. These parents at Odyssey House have so much instability and that relationship between Odyssey and Wasatch is so stable that the parents continue to go to parent nights, conferences, plays, concerts when they never did that before with their children,” Boone said.
When parents graduate or leave Odyssey House’s program, they try to find housing as close as possible to the school so their children can continue to attend Wasatch.
Conley acknowledged the difficulty of the task at hand.
“This isn’t just a math problem you can put down on paper. This isn’t just a number you can assign to each thing. There are judgment calls based on what’s happening because there is no one right answer, except for the one right answer being we got to do something,” Conley said.
He added, “There’s layers of complexity to this that we’re going to take the time that we have over the next two to three months to really dig into the data and look at it.”