Why Are These 7 Salt Lake City Elementary Schools On A List For Potential Graduate Studies?

When Joey McNamee needed to find a new home for her growing family, the Sugar House area was high on her list, primarily because of one school—Emerson Elementary.

“I liked that it was in a community and that it served students from different economic backgrounds or income levels… it was more diverse,” said McNamee, whose two children attend the school. “It seemed great for a family stepping into the world of public education.”

Since then, she’s seen more families like hers with younger children move into the Sugar House and the 9th and 9th Quarters. And that’s why she was, in part, confused when she saw Emerson on a list of seven schools that the district might consider further with a view to possible closure.

On Tuesday night, Salt Lake City school board members are scheduled to consider officially beginning classes at some, all, or none of the proposed elementary schools — Emerson, Bennion, Mary W. Jackson, Hawthorne, Riley, Wasatch, and Newman.

No schools in affluent neighborhoods east of 1300 East are suggested for study; Several schools were proposed in two school districts. Three elementary schools – Riley, Hawthorne and Emerson – are in one precinct, located in a strip that stretches across town from Glendale to East Liberty Park.

Both board members and parents have questioned the selection of the district’s Boundary Options Committee, which included 13 district employees.

“I wasn’t surprised to see either Hawthorne or Emerson on the list; “I’m very surprised to see both schools on the list,” McNamee said. “It’s gutting this whole school district.”

Rising housing costs and changing demographics in Salt Lake City — and how they affect where children live — played a role, but enrollment trends weren’t the only factor.

Salt Lake City is aging

According to demographers, the number of school-age children in the capital has been steadily declining for years. Since 2014, the county has seen a nearly 29% drop in enrollment.

According to a report by Applied Economics, places with growing household populations have stagnant or declining numbers of children across boroughs — with most new apartment buildings, especially downtown, attracting fewer families with children.

On the west side of Salt Lake City, the company says, local families appear to be aging or migrating to other areas, leaving fewer children there. However, there are signs of household size growth in the East Bank, suggesting that families may be moving in.

Utah Cribs real estate agent Jamie Kearns said she saw fewer families move to the west side of the city than to the east side.

“I would probably say that over the past three or four years, half of the clientele has been couples or single people who have had no interest or desire to have children,” Kearns said, adding that a lot of those people are looking for a place to stay on the West Side searched. “A lot of people I’ve helped with kids are upgrading their homes, but they kind of stay here on the East Side.”

Others, like Luann Lakis, who has worked in the city’s real estate industry for 33 years, also saw an overall decline in families with school-age children as clients. That’s likely due to rising housing costs across the city, Lakis said.

“I think demographically, there aren’t a lot of places left in the Salt Lake City area that families can afford,” she said. “I’ve just never had anyone with kids actually call me and say, ‘Hey, we need to find a house in town.'”

How the district rated each school

M. Lynn Bennion Elementary, with a capacity of 600 students, enrolled 157 students last year. Emerson with a capacity of 550 had 468.

District spokesman Yándary Chatwin emphasized that enrollment trends are only one of 12 factors considered, noting that some schools on the list have “robust” enrollments. “It wasn’t just a single factor, but if you look at all twelve factors, that was the seven [schools] That’s noticeable,” she said.

The committee rated schools in four categories: “safe”, “reasonable”, “simple” and “inexpensive”. Within these four categories there were several criteria; Each category was rated up to 16 points.

The safe category examined main roads near schools that are not safe to cross, and the availability of safe pedestrian routes – on foot or by bike.

For example, if Indian Hills Elementary were to close, Chatwin said children would either have to cross Foothill Drive, one of the city’s busiest streets, or take buses “to places that are difficult to get to.”

Other criteria included how many classes a school had per grade level (excluding magnet programs); when the building was last rebuilt; student achievements; and racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics.

Some schools have special programs and facilities that would be too difficult to close, such as community centers in Liberty, Rose Park and Mountain View elementary schools, Chatwin said.

Special programs were also mentioned – such as special education centers and extended learning magnet programs – although some may be easier to transfer.

School board members and parents have noted that schools are not proposed in areas considered more affluent, such as east of 1300 East.

“I’m concerned because there are seven schools on that list — which is about 25% of the total number of elementary schools in the county,” McNamee said. “The burden of this disruption falls on the middle- and low-income communities in our county.”

“We need this input”

While she said she was aware closing schools would not be an easy task, McNamee said she hoped for more transparency from the county about its future thought processes. Community members had to submit public records requests to obtain some school data, she said.

“I want to know if there are really good reasons to close this school that outweigh what we know about the really good reasons to keep it open,” McNamee said.

Emerson “is a safe place for our LGBTQ kids, it’s a safe place for our neurodivergent kids,” said McNamee, who is also the chair of Emerson’s School Community Council. “When we think about going to another school anywhere in the county, we face an unknown because we know what’s here at Emerson is really special and won’t be easy to replicate.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joey McNamee to speak about Emerson Elements on Thursday, July 27, 2023.

That’s exactly the kind of feedback the district wants to hear from families, Chatwin said.

“We need the input from the community to help us know where to respond and what parents are doing to advocate for their specific schools — that’s what they should be doing,” Chatwin said. “Committee members can look at spreadsheets all day, but without the unique voice of the community, we don’t have all the data we need.”

Justin Scaccy

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