Nearly every parent and teacher who went up to the podium Tuesday night offered a different statistic about the students at Bennion Elementary School in downtown Salt Lake City.
More than a quarter are homeless. At least 30 children live at the nearby women’s shelter for domestic violence victims a few blocks away. Nearly 65 percent are minorities.
Their point: The recent recommendation to close the school feels targeted.
“I don’t think that’s right or fair,” Margaret Blackbear, 37, told the Salt Lake City board of education.
Blackbear’s son, Robert, twirled around the microphone as she spoke, grabbing her hand and flipping his long braided hair, which is part of the family’s American Indian heritage. He and his brother Izaak, both 6, go to the elementary school. Blackbear said they feel safe being around other minority students who respect them.
“That’s right,” Robert shouted.
The elementary — one of the most diverse in the city and the state — was suggested for closure by the district’s building utilization committee. That group has spent the past six months looking at all of the schools in the city to determine where resources are being wasted with empty classrooms, too many teachers and too few students.
Almost every elementary in the district has seen its population steadily decline. It’s happened the fastest at Bennion.
Currently, the school has 213 students. That’s 387 below its capacity and the smallest enrollment in the district. Two years ago, it had 48 more.
“The declining enrollment is more pronounced at our elementary schools than it is anywhere else in the district,” said Superintendent Lexi Cunningham, pointing to a graph that showed the district has lost more than 1,000 K-6 students in four years.
The issue points to a bigger demographic shift in Salt Lake City, where either families with young children are moving out of downtown or people downtown have fewer young kids. Regardless, the district has to react, Cunningham added.
After hearing the committee’s report and the recommendation to close Bennion, the school board voted to review boundaries for all of its 26 traditional elementaries, hold a public hearing and consider its options again in May.
“We’re not making a decision tonight,” said board President Tiffany Sandberg. Board members Heather Bennett and Nate Salazar added that before a final call is made, they’d like to see studies on what impact closing a school has on at-risk students.
While many in the audience of about 40 people cheered at the announcement, a few suggested it was just putting off what would eventually happen.
Blackbear said she still believes “they’re taking our school away from us.” She went to Bennion as a child. Her dad went there. Her grandma taught there. And now her sons go there.
“It’s a community school,” she said. “The teachers there remember me.”
The elementary, at 429 S. 800 East, has long served a unique population. Many parents choose to go there because the school offers support programs. There are behavioral teams to work with kids who have been traumatized. There are teachers who know the ins and outs of protective orders. More than 98 percent of the students get free or reduced-price meals. It’s a Title 1 school, meaning it receives supplemental federal funding due to its proportion of low-income families.
“I just don’t want them to lose their school,” said Jodie Eckley, 39, holding tight to her 4-year-old daughter who was shouting “mama” to the board members. “I just don’t know what to do.”
Eckley, a single mother of three, brought her kids to Bennion about two years ago when she sought services at the women’s shelter for domestic violence victims. After finding support there, she was able to rent an apartment next door to the school and now watches her two sons, 6 and 10, walk to class each morning.
She broke down in tears before she could finish telling the board what she thought.
Parents passed around a petition to sign. Teachers talked about how much they loved their students. Most chastised the board for not being more transparent.
Laura Bergen, a third-grade teacher at the elementary, said she had no idea about the discussion to close the school until two weeks ago. Curtis Lee Dorsey-Maestas, an alumnus, said many in the community hadn’t heard about it until after this meeting was scheduled last week.
While board members assured that the recommendation to close the school had nothing to do with its demographics, it did have to do, at least in part, with test scores. Bennion was named one of the worst-performing in Utah this year, Cunningham said, and given three years to improve under the state’s turnaround program.
It had an overall proficiency score among students of 30 percent in language arts, 26 percent in math, 32 percent in science. Closing it could shuffle kids to better performing schools while absolving the district of requirements to do better.
Already this year, Granite School District’s board of education voted to close an elementary rather than face further sanctions for low end-of-year scores and grades. That undoubtably caused concern for Salt Lake City parents Tuesday, who whispered about how “this isn’t fair” and “I don’t want the same thing to happen here.”
“In the end, the community just doesn’t feel informed,” said Carrie Chalverus, who has a second- and fifth-grader at Bennion. “But we still have time.”
After Bennion, the next smallest elementary school in the district is Washington, which has 291 students — 62 percent of whom are minorities and 6 percent homeless. Ensign, Franklin, Parkview and Riley were also on the declining list. Highland Park, not included, has the highest elementary enrollment in Salt Lake City at 654 students.
Bennion Elementary School was named for M. Lynn Bennion. He served as superintendent for the district for 24 years starting in 1944 and through the civil rights movement. During that time, he responded to several marches led by students and parents of color and promised to include make the schools more equitable and diverse.