Are Salt Lake City taxpayers ready to support three new high schools?

“Students who actually have schools in their community do not face all these different challenges,” says an East High grad from Glendale.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) In Glendale, Roxanne Langi holds a photograph of herself with her eight children — four graduated from East High School and four graduated from West High School. Langi supports the idea of a building a new high school on the west side of Salt Lake City. Pictured front, left to right, Atelaite, Steven, Roxanne, Inoke and in back, Molonai, Siosaia, Ana, Nifai and Amber Langi.

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Five o’clock in the morning.

That was the time that Itzel Nava’s dad had to be at work every weekday. It’s also the time that he made sure Nava and her younger siblings were up and getting ready for school.

Nava would have to get to her bus stop near Poplar Grove Park, close to the intersection of Indiana Avenue and Emery Street, a little before 7 a.m. From there, she had a 40-minute bus ride to East High School, where she would still arrive earlier than students who lived nearby.

”It was always students who looked like me” who were at school first, remembers Nava, who graduated in 2016 and is now 24. “Then at a certain time, there were students who didn’t look like me.”

Now, Nava is one of many community members who have been calling for the Salt Lake City School District to consider building a new high school on the west side of the city — where students continue to deal with the distance between neighborhoods like hers, in Glendale, and east side high schools.

The calls come as Salt Lake City school board members consider the futures of West High, which is just west of downtown on 300 West, and Highland High, the district’s easternmost high school, at 2166 S. 1700 East.

Both need extensive repair. The board recently approved increasing its spending on feasibility studies for rebuilding both of them, a tab that now exceeds $1 million. East High School, on 1300 East, was rebuilt in 1996.

West-side boosters aren’t arguing that the city — which is seeing declining elementary school enrollment — must have four high schools.

But in a recent study session, school board members focused on that approach, framing a possible west-side high school only as the district’s fourth comprehensive high school. Members didn’t discuss the possibility of not rebuilding West or Highland.

Building any new high schools would require voter support for bond funding, noted interim Superintendent Martin Bates.

“The question about community support for the rebuilding of those schools [West and Highland], let alone the building of three schools — those questions are still out there,” Bates said.

“We do not have $600 million in the bank account to rebuild West and Highland. We do not have $900 million to rebuild West and Highland and a third high school,” he said. “The only way to do that … would be to ask the community for support to borrow the money to do that.”

Board chairman Nate Salazar said he’s felt cautious about whether there is taxpayer support for such sums.

“Would the community support a $600 million bond, would they support two high schools, would they support three high schools knowing it would probably around $900 million?” Salazar wondered at the March board meeting.

Even for two high schools, he said, “that is a very significant ask; it would be a huge bond, probably the largest in history here in Salt Lake.”

Lacking a ‘sense of belonging’

The shorter commute is only a part of why west-side residents say they are fighting for a new high school closer to their neighborhoods.

They also feel it would help create a better school community for future kids.

Ryan Gagon was a student teacher at East High School this year until April, when his stint ended. Many of the students who live on the west side, he said, told him they felt a lack of community at East.

“They didn’t feel like they really had a place at East High,” Gagon said. “A lot of them said they didn’t feel like this school was representative of the community they live in.”

While the district’s students can individually request to attend a different high school, the boundaries for East High extend west into Glendale.

Nava, who moved to Glendale with her family from Oaxaca, Mexico when she was about 10 years old, said she would hear her classmates at East talking about vacations abroad, or what they were doing to prepare for their college applications and standardized tests. These were things she wasn’t able to relate to, she said, due to her family’s finances.

“I remember meeting with my counselor and I had told him I wanted to go to college … but in the process of trying to get that application in, we realized I didn’t have a Social Security number,” Nava said.

She also felt her and her classmates’ identities were disregarded, sometimes being disciplined for speaking their native languages and not English.

“So it was this realization that I don’t look like the students that I go to school with,” she said, “but [the school] didn’t create a safe space for me to try and understand who I am.”

Lifelong Glendale resident Roxanne Langi said it was her perception that her oldest four children, who attended and graduated from East High, may have been a little more accepted at the school due to their involvement in sports. But the environment was not perfect for them, as Tongan children, she said.

“The younger two of my older four had a really hard time at East High,” said Langi. “But I think it was exacerbated by the fact that they were brown.”

Langi said she felt uncomfortable herself when attending PTA meetings, due to the stigma she felt for being from the west side.

“I am white, but the minute I was like, ‘I’m representing Glendale,’ and they were like ‘Oh,’” Langi said. “It’s just one of those things.”

District spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said the district hears the concerns from community members, and that its leaders are “taking the steps to look at the possibility of having this fourth high school.”

“If we make this investment, it’s a significant investment, and we want to make sure that we are going to have the financial resources to execute, that we are going to have the population resources too, to move forward,” Chatwin said. “We will continue to solicit community input, especially if the board does decide to move forward with a bond.”

Distance limits involvement

The distance to school also is important for kids, Gagon said. He noticed many students from the west side weren’t able to stay after school for extracurricular activities, he said, due to their need to take a bus home, as many were from lower-income families.

Having later transportation, Nava said, would make it difficult for her to make sure her younger siblings were situated back home after school. Geographic disparities create challenges not only to access to extracurriculars and family engagement with the school, Nava said, but also to “a sense of belonging.”

“I didn’t really fully understand what it was like to go to a [high] school in your community because I never had anything to compare it to,” Nava said. “It wasn’t until I finally graduated from East High School when I realized a lot of students who actually have schools in their community do not face all these different challenges.”

District bus routes are based on school boundaries and students who live outside them are responsible for their transportation, Chatwin said.

She added that the Salt Lake City School District provides transportation for kids who live too far from its buildings within the school’s boundaries, which include afternoon and early evening buses for kids who participate in afterschool extracurriculars. It also hosts activities like high school welcome events in locations that include the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center, she said.

The district also currently partners with the UTA to provide free bus and rail passes for students, Chatwin said.

Exploring the costs

School board members earlier this year asked for an analysis of splitting West, East and Highland students with a fourth high school. At the March board meeting, Paul Schulte, executive director of auxiliary services, said the ideal number of students for a high school is a minimum between 1,500 and 1,600 students.

Current five-year enrollment projections for each existing school are 1,919 students for East, 1,743 for Highland and 2,510 for West. Adding a fourth high school would reduce the average number of students for each school to around 1,543 — with a slow decline to below 1,500 within five years.

The estimated 2024 construction cost for a new high school could be upwards to $300 million, Schulte said, and for a new school on the west side, that would be on top of the $50 million to $70 million real estate cost for a 40- to 50-acre campus.

The estimated annual costs that include utilities, repairs and support staff at a new high school — excluding teachers — would be around $2.65 million, his presentation stated.

Salazar suggested the board consider hiring a firm to survey district taxpayers about their support for bonds. While other members said they liked that idea, the board opted to set it aside while members focused on hiring a new superintendent, with the board appointing former district principal and assistant principal Elizabeth Grant into the position Thursday.

Today, Nava is a graduate of University of Utah and is working towards a master’s degree from Columbia University. She also works at the Glendale-Mountain View Community Learning Center, hoping to provide the youth in her community better opportunities.

”Just growing up here, language, food, culture, music, all of these things that make me successful, are valued here in my community,” she said.

She believes a high school on the west side would be better equipped to deal with the challenges that she faced — possibly leading to higher graduation rates, college admission rates and employment opportunities.

“We truly believe that we deserve it, and our youth deserve it,” Nava said. “Our people have been vocal about it, mothers are taking time out of their day to really advocate for a school, because we understand that our needs are not being met on the east side schools.”