A Westside High School would foster a better community, residents and advocates say

Five o’clock in the morning.

That was the time Itzel Nava’s father had to be at work every weekday. It’s also the time he makes sure Nava and her younger siblings get up and get ready for school.

Nava was due to arrive at her bus stop near Poplar Grove Park, near the intersection of Indiana Avenue and Emery Street, just before 7 a.m. From there, she had a 40-minute bus ride to East High School, where she would still arrive earlier than students who lived nearby.

“It was always students who looked like me” who were in school first, recalls Nava, who graduated in 2016 and is now 24. “Then at some point there were students who didn’t look like me.”

Now, Nava is one of many community members who have urged the Salt Lake City School District to consider building a new high school on the west side of town — where students continue to deal with the distance between neighborhoods like theirs in Glendale, and East Side high schools.

The calls come as members of the Salt Lake City School Board ponder the future of West High, west of downtown at 300 West, and Highland High, the county’s easternmost high school, at 2166 S. 1700 East.

Both require extensive repairs. The board recently approved to increase its spending on feasibility studies to rebuild both, a bill that now exceeds $1 million. East High School at 1300 East was rebuilt in 1996.

Westside boosters don’t argue that the city — which is seeing a drop in elementary school enrollments — must have four high schools.

But in a recent study session, school board members focused on that approach, framing a possible Westside High School as only the district’s fourth comprehensive high school. Members did not discuss the possibility of not rebuilding West or Highland.

Building new high schools would require voter support for bond funding, interim superintendent Martin Bates noted.

“The question of community support for the rebuilding of these schools [West and Highland]let alone building three schools — those questions are still out there,” Bates said.

“We don’t have $600 million in the bank to rebuild West and Highland. We don’t have $900 million to rebuild West and Highland and a third high school,” he said. “The only way to do that … would be to ask the community for assistance to borrow the money to do it.”

Chief Executive Nate Salazar said he was wary of taxpayer support for such sums.

“Would the community back a $600 million bond, would it back two high schools, would it back three high schools, knowing it was probably going to be around $900 million?” Salazar asked at the board meeting in March.

Even for two high schools, he said, “It’s a very important question; it would be a huge bond, probably the biggest in history here in Salt Lake.”

Lack of “sense of belonging”

The shorter commute is just part of the reason Westside residents say they are fighting for a new high school closer to their neighborhoods.

They also believe it would help create a better school community for future children.

Ryan Gagon was a student teacher at East High School this year until he graduated in April. Many of the students living on the west side told him they felt a lack of community in the east.

“They didn’t feel like they really had a place at East High,” Gagon said. “Many of them said they didn’t feel this school was representative of the community in which they live.”

While the district’s students may individually apply to attend another high school, the boundaries for East High extend west to Glendale.

Nava, who moved to Glendale with her family from Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was about 10 years old, said she would hear her classmates in East talk about vacations abroad or what they are doing to prepare for their college applications and prepare standardized tests. These are things she couldn’t relate to because of her family’s finances, she said.

“I remember meeting with my counselor and telling him I wanted to go to college … but when we tried to submit that application, we found that I didn’t have a social security number,” Nava said.

She also felt that her identities and those of her classmates were being disregarded, and they were sometimes punished for speaking their mother tongue rather than English.

“So it was this realization that I don’t look like the students that I go to school with,” she said, “but [the school] didn’t create a safe space for me to try to understand who I am.”

Lifelong Glendale resident Roxanne Langi said it was her perception that her eldest four children, who attended and graduated from East High, might have been a little more accepted at school because of their involvement in sports. But the environment wasn’t perfect for them as Tongan children, she said.

“The younger two of my older four had a really tough time at East High,” Langi said. “But I think it was made worse by the fact that they were brown.”

Langi said she feels uncomfortable attending PTA meetings herself due to the stigma she feels of being from the West Side.

“I’m white, but at that moment I was like, ‘I represent Glendale,’ and they were like, ‘Oh,'” Langi said. “It’s just one of those things.”

District spokesman Yándary Chatwin said the district is hearing community members’ concerns and that its leaders are “taking the steps to explore the possibility of having this fourth high school.”

“If we make this investment, it’s a significant investment and we want to make sure that we have the financial resources to execute it, that we also have the population resources to move forward,” Chatwin said. “We will continue to seek input from the community, particularly if the board decides to proceed with a bond.”

Distance limits participation

Distance to school is also important for children, Gagon said. He noted that many West Side students were unable to stay after school for after-school activities, he said, because they had to take a bus home as many were from lower-income families.

Transporting them later, Nava said, would make it harder for her to make sure her younger siblings were back home after school. Geographic differences not only pose challenges for access to extracurricular activities and family involvement in school, Nava said, but also for a “sense of belonging.”

“I didn’t really understand what it was like to go to one [high] School in your community because I’ve never had a comparison,” Nava said. “It wasn’t until I finally graduated from East High School that I realized that many students who actually have schools in their community don’t face all of these diverse challenges.”

The district’s bus routes are based on school boundaries, and students who live outside of them are responsible for their transportation, Chatwin said.

She added that the Salt Lake City School District provides transportation for children who live too far from its buildings within school boundaries, including afternoon and early evening buses for children participating in after-school extracurricular activities. It also hosts activities like high school welcome events at places like the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center, she said.

The district is also currently working with UTA to provide free bus and train passes for students, Chatwin said.

exploring the costs

School board members earlier this year asked for an analysis of the breakdown of West, East and Highland students with a fourth high school. At the board meeting in March, Paul Schulte, managing director of the auxiliary services, said that the ideal number of students for a high school should be at least between 1,500 and 1,600 students.

Current five-year enrollment projections for each existing school are 1,919 students for East, 1,743 for Highland, and 2,510 for West. Adding a fourth high school would reduce the average enrollment for each school to about 1,543 — with a slow decline to under 1,500 over five years.

Estimated construction costs for a new high school in 2024 could be as much as $300 million, Schulte said, and for a new school on the West Side that would add to real estate costs of $50 million to $70 million for a 40-ton 50 acre campus.

The estimated annual cost, which includes utilities, repairs, and support staff at a new high school — not including teachers — would be around $2.65 million, his presentation said.

Salazar suggested the board hire a firm to survey the district’s taxpayers about their support for the bonds. While other members said they liked the idea, the board chose to put it aside while members focused on hiring a new superintendent, with the board Thursday hiring former district chief and deputy director Elizabeth Grant for the position appointed.

Today, Nava is a graduate of the University of Utah and is pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia University. She also works at the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center and hopes to provide better opportunities for the youth in her community.

“I just grew up here, language, food, culture, music, all those things that make me successful are valued here in my community,” she said.

She believes a West Side high school would be better equipped to handle the challenges it faced – potentially leading to higher graduation rates, college acceptance rates and job opportunities.

“We really believe we deserve it and our youth deserve it,” Nava said. “Our people have been vocal about moms taking the time to really care about a school because we understand our needs are not being met in East Side schools.”

Justin Scaccy

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