Schools are emptying on the Salt Lake Valley’s east side and overflowing in the west. Here’s why.

Districts face decisions about building new schools in growing communities while also considering consolidations and closures in aging neighborhoods.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lindsay Godsey walks her children to school in Holladay on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. Godsey, like many other parents who live on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley, has seen enrollment at her children’s elementary school dwindle over the last five years.

As Lindsay Godsey walks her children to Spring Lane Elementary School in Holladay, she asks whether the crossing guard has seen any other kids on the crisp Tuesday morning. The crossing guard says she hasn’t — and adds that she usually doesn’t see many.

Godsey, who graduated from Cottonwood High School in 2002, knows almost every family in the neighborhood. Most of the new residents are retired, she said. Of the younger families who have moved in, most enroll their children in private schools or drive them to newer schools within the Granite School District.

There’s a lonely sign in front of her yard that says “We Choose Spring Lane.” Not many others are posted nearby.

Godsey, like many other parents who live on the east side of the Salt Lake Valley, has seen enrollment at her children’s elementary school dwindle over the last five years. With rising housing prices keeping families with young children from moving in — and with newer schools just a special permit and a short distance away — Spring Lane is shrinking.

Enrollment also is dropping across the Salt Lake City and Murray school districts, with administrators in the capital city saying decreases there also appear tied to housing prices.

But on the west side of the valley, even within Granite School District, schools are booming. In the past three years, Jordan School District has opened elementary schools, middle schools and Mountain Ridge High in Herriman. Its school board members are now considering whether to split students in one rapidly growing Herriman elementary school over two campuses, with a new one possibly serving grades four through six.

Still, Jordan, like Granite, has schools where enrollment is sagging. Spring Lane is one of six elementary schools in Granite where enrollment has now dipped below 300, and five of those schools are located east of Interstate 15. In 2019, only one district elementary school had less than 300 students — Sandburg Elementary, which closed the following school year.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lindsay Godsey's sign in support of Spring Lane Elementary in Holladay on Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

Ten years ago, when the Chinese dual immersion language program started at Spring Lane, more than 600 students walked its halls. Now, there’s 287, according to Granite School District data.

The emptying of the east side leaves parents like Godsey, as well as district officials, in a difficult situation: Is it possible to empower a shrinking school to survive, and is it worth it to try?

For Godsey, and many parents like her, the answer is becoming complicated.

“The school is getting too small to really be able to thrive,” Godsey said. " … I’m ashamed to say that if it weren’t for the Chinese program, we would probably go somewhere else.”

The benefits and toll of open enrollment

Enrollment in Granite School District has fallen by nearly 11,000 students since 2001. As recently as 2016, there were 67,177 students in the district, but in fall 2021 there were 59,736.

One broad factor: The birth rate in Salt Lake County continues to fall year over year.

But parents also are choosing to educate their children elsewhere — moving both between and within districts. Utah is an open enrollment state, meaning that students can transfer to any public school they want to with a special permit.

Open enrollment can be a curse or a blessing for schools, especially ones that offer unique arts programs or dual language immersion. That’s illustrated by Spring Lane, which sits in the eastern side of the Granite School District, where leaders are considering possible consolidations among a slate of 15 elementary schools.

According to a Davis Demographics report, Granite has between 10 and 14 too many elementary schools for its student population.

Parents say they believe Spring Lane is being kept alive by its Chinese dual immersion program. The school was nearly closed a decade ago, before the program started. Today it offers one Chinese immersion class and one traditional class at each grade level, and 118 students attend from other neighborhoods.

But of the 371 kids who live inside Spring Lane’s boundary, 197 got a special permit to attend another school. Newer Oakwood Elementary is 1.3 miles away, and Woodstock Elementary is 1.9 miles away.

“If you’re not in the dual immersion program ... [at Spring Lane],” said Spring Lane parent Tristan Nielson, “it’s not a great place to be.”

Twin Peaks Elementary, about two miles west of Spring Lane, doesn’t have a dual immersion program. It lost 158 students to special permits in the 2021-22 school year, and is also on the consolidation study list.

“At some point, there’s a tipping point where you’re looking around, like, ‘All my neighbors are going to this new school. That means there must be something wrong with this other school.’ And it kind of turns into a negative perception,” Godsey said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Such negative perceptions most directly affect working parents or other families who don’t have the time or means to drive their kids to school, neighborhood parents point out.

As other students get special permits to attend elsewhere — taking their per-pupil funding with them — the neighborhood school has less financial support and potentially fewer educator positions.

“It’s not at all a reflection of the teachers. The teachers are amazing, but they’re burnt out because they don’t have enough support,” Godsey said

Neighborhood parents who send their kids to Oakwood or Woodstock spend their weekends at Spring Lane, Godsey said, using its playground and open field. But with more than 100 Spring Lane students drawn from other areas for the dual immersion program, it’s not the community hub it once was, Nielson said.

In Salt Lake City, despite that potential drawback, the school board has discussed using and adding special programs to attract out-of-district students.

And in West Jordan, where schools in an area on the east side of the Jordan School District are seeing declining enrollment, leaders are hoping an arts magnet program at Majestic Elementary and an accelerated learning program at Westland Elementary may help reverse that trend, an administrator noted at a fall school board meeting.

Western expansion

As Granite weighs closing elementary schools on the eastern side of the valley, the district is mulling the possibility of building new schools out west.

Davis Demographics projects 25,000 new housing units will be built in Magna in the next 10 to 20 years, with a Daybreak-sized development on the horizon. The district plans to look at sites for new elementary schools and is rebuilding Cyprus High School.

Cyprus High has grown from 2,538 students in the 2018-19 school year to 2,724 this year.

“It’s about having buildings in the right places, right?” district spokesperson Ben Horsley said. “Ideally, if we could simply pick and move some of these school buildings, that would be better. But that’s not possible.”

In the Jordan School District, Scott Festin, a consultant in Planning and Student Services, checks building permits every Friday, he told the school board this fall.

There are future major developments “just over the horizon,” he said, including Olympia Hills in Herriman, Jones Ranch and Wood Ranch in West Jordan, and additional Daybreak developments in South Jordan.

But for now, Jordan is a “tale of three districts,” Festin said. “We have a district of growth, we have a district of decline and a district of stability, all within our Jordan School District.”

Newer elementary schools in areas with a lot of construction are experiencing growth, he said, such as Antelope Canyon in West Jordan, Aspen in South Jordan, Mountain Point in Bluffdale and Ridge View in Herriman, along with an elementary expected to open in Herriman next fall.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A future elemtary school site for the Jordan School District near new Daybreak construction in South Jordan on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

To cope with booming enrollment near Ridge View Elementary, the Jordan school board is exploring the concept of constructing a “flex building” on nearby land that had been considered for a future middle school. That building could hold grades four through six as a second campus of Ridge View.

Within West Jordan, however, “we have some schools that are small, and getting smaller,” Festin said. “This is due entirely to demographics.”

These schools are “mostly in the east part of the district between Jordan Landing and the Jordan River,” Festin said. “We’re just not getting new kindergartners. … Our births are down, families are moving out but not being replaced with other families with students of school age.”

From 2010 to 2020, the district’s population grew from just over 200,000 to just over 300,000, he said. But births have gone from 20 births per 1,000 residents to 14.

And there’s a change in the housing mix, he added. Of 1,800 units new units opening in the district, 40 percent are single family homes, which are predicted to have more school children, and 40 percent are townhouses.

”How families can afford housing right now is beyond me,” Festin said. “The townhouses there by Ridgeview Elementary School … were starting at $474,000. They’re now well over five.”

Two exceptions to the growth trend, in the northwest region of the district, are Sunset Ridge Middle School and Copper Hills High school. They have enrollment that is “relatively flat,” due to recent school boundary changes, he said.

Some students living near those schools are attending Joel P. Jensen Middle School and West Jordan High School to the east instead; “especially with the middle school, those students are being bused past two other middle schools to get there,” he said.

The rest of the district’s schools have large but stable enrollment, with between 600 and 1,000 students, he said. These include elementaries Blackridge in Herriman, Rosamond in Riverton and Oakcrest in West Jordan.

What’s next

Every district in Salt Lake County is facing changes or shifts in enrollment.

• Canyons School District has generally maintained its enrollment during the years of the COVID-19 pandemic, but still lost about 650 mostly younger students. In the fall of 2018, the district had 33,907 students; that total was 33,252 in the fall of 2021.

High schools in Canyons enrolled 315 more students in that time frame. But to deal with the changes among younger students, its board of education voted earlier this month to approve a plan for equalizing enrollment at elementary schools in Midvale.

A group of parents earlier this year proposed breaking a new Draper school district out of Canyons. The mayor and city council have since said they don’t support that idea, KUER reported, although supporters could still gather signatures for a citizen initiative.

• Murray City School District has lost 500 students since the 2015-16 academic year, and like in Salt Lake City and Granite districts, elementary schools are seeing the biggest drops. Parkside Elementary School, for example, enrolled 436 students in the fall of 2021, which was 189 fewer than enrolled in the fall of 2015.

Murray High School, the only high school in the district, has maintained its enrollment at 1,400 students over the last decade. At an April study meeting, board members discussed the future needs of the district’s schools, especially its elementary schools, and options for repairing or replacing some of them.

• In Salt Lake City School District, this fall’s enrollment of 19,833 is 3,200 fewer kids than five years ago. Continuing decreases in enrollment could mean the district will need to employ fewer teachers and eventually shut some schools.

In the 2014-15 school year, 16 of Salt Lake City’s 27 elementaries had more than 500 students. This year, none does, according to a report by demographer Rick Brammer.

District staff identified clusters of elementary schools to consider for boundary changes or closures in February, but Superintendent Timothy Gadson ultimately decided to hold off on beginning that process until at least next year.

• Jordan school board members earlier this month decided to have Superintendent Anthony Godfrey work on a proposal for programming at the potential new “flex building,” as district staff work on building design.

In November, planning consultant Caleb Olson told the board that district facilities staff had determined the “reasonable maximum” of portable classrooms to set up at crowded schools should be 10. Olson, a former assistant principal at Sunset Ridge Middle School, said the school had 13 portables one year — which was “not reasonable. It was a lot.”

Ten portables, he said, “is like putting Majestic Elementary behind a school, but without increasing the size of the gym or the library or the hallways or the cafeteria or the parking lot or the lockers or anything else.”

Board member Matt Young urged “coming to an understanding as a board as to what this [enrollment] information is telling us and then how we begin utilizing this as a communication tool with our patrons and us so that we can all get on the same page.”

• As the east side of the Granite School District has matured, student population numbers are beginning to stabilize after years of decline, Horsley said. Now the district is considering the need to redraw boundaries for its elementary and high schools, and a population analysis committee will present proposals to the school board in June.

The committee will consider the condition of buildings, transportation routes, how to protect at-risk populations and programming as part of its research.

The district had intended to start boundary studies in 2020, but elected to wait because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One study will focus on elementary schools with boundaries that border on 700 East and Van Winkle, and the other on the boundaries between Skyline, Olympus and Cottonwood high schools.

If the school board votes to pursue the process of redrawing boundaries, it will take time to hear feedback from the community before making decisions in December. Any decision to close a school, Horsley said, wouldn’t take effect until at least the 2023-24 school year.

Correction: May 24, 2022: 9:40 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the status of construction at Cyprus High School.