A beloved elementary school in West Jordan — built 40 years ago, when the area’s population was booming — is now slated for closure as both the building and the neighborhood have aged.
West Jordan Elementary School will close at the end of the school year, a decision that came last week with a unanimous vote from Jordan School District’s board of education. Several community members and parents lined up to speak Tuesday night, saying they will miss hearing the school bells every weekday and seeing the kids run back and forth on the nearby sidewalks.
The school had become part of the community, said Douglas Greenwood, a dad who has fought for the school to stay open. There are some parents who attended the school and then later sent their kids there.
But instead of building on that tradition, Greenwood accused, the board and city leaders are giving up on the area when they should be investing there.
“There has just been this neglect,” he said.
The board members said they have to rely on the reports from the district-hired demographers, who have predicted the neighborhoods around the school won’t be reversing the trends any time soon. The area has changed in the past few years, with the population shifting older, filling more with retirees and fewer young families.
“We just don’t really see the situation changing,” said district spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf.
“None of us want to close a school,” added board president Tracy Miller. But she said they have no choice, and not doing so is costing the district roughly $1.5 million each year that could be reallocated.
Fewer kids have been entering first grade each year at West Jordan Elementary, making each new class smaller and smaller.
Over the last five years — while the population has grown elsewhere in the district — West Jordan Elementary has decreased by about 40 students. It currently has 456 enrolled.
While that’s not as low as other elementary schools in nearby districts that are closing, including three in Granite School District, Jordan School District predicts it will get worst fast. And so it is acting now, board members said, to split the students there among Majestic (which runs a speciality arts program), Oquirrh and Westland elementaries to stem the problem.
Other districts in Salt Lake County — and the state as a whole — are facing enrollment struggles. Public K-12 schools statewide gained only 299 students this year, the smallest increase ever reported, according to numbers released this month from the Utah State Board of Education. Typically, an additional 7,000 kids, at least, enroll annually in Utah schools.
Salt Lake City School District has long been battling decreases in its student population, and will be deciding on school closures and staff cuts starting next year. It lost 384 students this fall compared to last fall.
Granite School District saw its enrollment drop by 1,255. And nearby Canyons School District dipped by 319.
Jordan School District, at the southwest end of the county, this fall reported 57,829 kids; down just 11 students from last year. It has a generally steadier population, having grown overall in the last five years. But that has largely been concentrated in blooming communities, like Herriman.
West Jordan schools, like West Jordan Elementary, are stagnating, losing students to charters or seeing families move elsewhere in the county and state.
The area was once one of the fastest-growing in the state. And that’s when the district moved fast to build an elementary school there. It is a modular construction, Riesgraf said, so it could be put up quickly to accommodate the then-young population that was exploding. The district was just trying to keep up.
“It’s like putting trailer homes together,” she said. “It was only supposed to be like that for 15 years to deal with the boom.”
Two other schools built like it in the district were since replaced. But kids kept attending West Jordan Elementary. Now, in addition to the declining population, the building is deteriorating, and it’s not going to be safe for kids to continue attending classes in, Miller said at the board meeting Tuesday. An engineering firm hired by the district has warned board members to take action.
“There are safety issues here,” Miller said as parents protested the decision.
Peter Harris, a parent, urged the board to be more “forward-thinking to the changing demographics of the area.” As a former playground and place space planner, he said, he believes there are flaws in the district’s population study and it is not as doomsday as they forecast.
“Some of you don’t have to live with the decisions that you make today,” he said.
Andrea Young, a parent who submitted a comment online that was read during the meeting, wrote: “We felt like the rug was pulled out from under us.”
She said she does not support splitting up hundreds of kids, moving them further away from their homes and from friends, particularly given the demographics of the school. Nearly half of the population, or 199 students at West Jordan Elementary, are economically disadvantaged. About 38% are students of color.
Young urged the district to hold onto the land, at least as a backup plan, and “invest in this community.”
The process to begin looking at schools to close in the district began in May, said board president Miller. “This has not been an easy process for anybody involved,” she added.
Board member Jen Atwood, who will be leaving her seat when her term is finished at the end of this month, said she was previously the PTA president at West Jordan when her son was a student there, roughly 15 years ago. She said she remembers hearing concerns then about the population starting to decline.
She hoped it would turn around, she said, but it hasn’t.
“I’ve gathered enough information,” she said, “to know that my vote is what I need to do.”
Closing the schools hurts, she said, especially in a close community. It’s what’s best, though, she said, even if it’s the hardest decision she made during her time on the board.