Students are still leaving Salt Lake City schools

It’s now been at least seven years of declining enrollment in the capital city school district.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake City School District's board is pictured on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022. The board heard a report about continuing enrollment decreases on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022.

Enrollment in Salt Lake City schools has dropped again — continuing a trend that portends possible school closures and future staffing cuts.

The school district in the capital city has 398 fewer students this fall than last year, or a 2% decline, according to annual headcount numbers released each October. The student body is now 19,447.

The district’s school board heard a brief report on the numbers Tuesday night during a study session, but did not take any action. After the decrease last year and under projections for this school year, the district’s staffing formula called for cutting the equivalent of 76.5 full-time educators, but board members opted last spring to reduce that to the equivalent of 42 educators. They also discussed the need to start evaluating which schools to close.

But a proposed list of schools to evaluate was set aside, with decisions postponed to next year.

The only member of the school board to comment on the numbers was President Melissa Ford. “It’s really good for us to see what these trends are,” she said.

The drop this year is slightly smaller than the declines in 2021, when the district lost about 700 students, and 2020, which had 1,500 fewer students. But it adds up to more than 2,600 students leaving the district in three years.

It also marks at least seven years of declines, starting in 2016, said Sam Quantz, the district’s chief information officer, who presented the report. And over the last decade — since 2012 — Quantz said the district has lost nearly 18% of its student body, or about 4,500 students.

The district has struggled to maintain its student population due to several factors, but the loss was “accelerated” during the pandemic, Quantz acknowledged.

Some families reported leaving the district in fall 2020 after the school board decided to start the year entirely online because of the risks of COVID-19. There was a lot of pushback over the call, with many parents asking for an in-person option and moving to districts or charters when one wasn’t offered.

A demographer also reported to the board earlier this year that the aging population in the capital, combined with a sliding birth rate are also contributing to the declining enrollment.

The biggest declines in elementary schools

The numbers presented Tuesday continue to show that elementary schools are seeing the biggest drops. Last fall, there were 9,650 students in Salt Lake City’s K-6 classes. This year, there are 214 fewer.

Of the 27 elementary schools in the district, 14 saw declines, including the virtual elementary school, which dipped by 200 students, the biggest drop. It’s likely some of those kids returned to in-person classrooms.

[Read more: Here’s how enrollment at Utah’s virtual schools is doing two years after start of pandemic]

And some schools did see increases. Bonneville Elementary grew by 50 students and Nibley Park by 31.

But it’s not enough to offset the losses. Escalante Elementary decreased by 39 students, Newman Elementary by 23 and Riley Elementary by 21.

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 the report.

Now, the largest elementary school in Salt Lake City, Highland Park, has 493 students. Most are built to accommodate 600.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) School counselor Caisa Pope with students in the after school program at Salt Lake City's Bennion Elementary on Tuesday Feb. 19, 2019.

The smallest, Bennion, has 157. That school had already been talked about for closure, but district officials pulled back on those plans after parents spoke out.

The initial list of schools created earlier this year that were proposed for evaluation for possible closure included Bennion again. It also included many west side schools and those that are Title I, or serve a high proportion of low-income families.

But demographers have shown that the neighborhoods west of Interstate 15 in the district are having the greatest drops in students.

The report Tuesday also showed that district is becoming more diverse, even while the number of students is decreasing.

Salt Lake City has long been one of three districts in that state — which also includes San Juan and Ogden — that has a majority of students of color. It moved up slightly this year, from 58.2% students of color to 58.4%.

Those who are economically disadvantaged also increased from 49.71% in fall 2021 to 52.27% this year. Part of that increase, though, can be attributed to fewer families signing up for free or reduced lunch last year, which the metric is based on, because lunch was free for all students as part of a federal pandemic program.

A closer indicator would be the percentage of homeless students, which increased, too. That moved from 2.9% last year to 3.1% this year.

Another trend pushing students and families out of Salt Lake City, demographers have said, is the rising cost of housing. It’s been predicted that in another ten years, the district’s student body will drop below 17,000.

“They certainly predicted some of this trend,” Quantz said Tuesday.

Middle school and high school drops

Overall, all five of the district’s middle schools also saw declines. Glendale Middle dropped the most, losing 66 students.

Two of the district’s three traditional high schools dipped. East High’s decline was smaller, a change of six fewer students. West High’s population was reduced by 83 students. But its magnet program for high achieving students grew by 20 students.

That was an anomaly, though, when many of the district’s other magnet and high-achieving student programs saw enrollment declines this year.

There was some movement within 9-12, too, and Highland High gained 68 students.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Highland High School pictured on Sept. 27, 2022.

But the high schools combined, including the two nontraditional schools, lost 59 students. And those moving from 11th grade to 12th grade also declined by 105 — the biggest dip by grade level.

Quantz said a portion of those can be attributed to early graduation, but he wasn’t sure how many as of Tuesday night.

What’s next

The school board and the district have indicated when they will take action on declining enrollment, beyond pushing decisions to next year.

Board members did not discuss any plans Tuesday night while hearing the new numbers.

But school districts in Utah are funded based on how many student enroll. And fewer students means less money. The district has previously acknowledged that it is overstaffed, under its own staffing ratios.

The district has also recently been mired in controversy with its superintendent, who recently agreed to step down. That leaves the district searching for a third new leader in two years at the same time as trying to address the enrollment crunch.