Map: Wasatch Front elementaries that didn’t reopen this fall, those with an uncertain future — and one new one

Schools are celebrating the start of the new academic year, as some are bursting and some face closure studies.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergartener Elise Huntington, 5, reaches out to her sister Vivian 2, to join her and her father Matt as her mother Kaitlin takes photos on the first day of school at Mary W. Jackson Elementary, August 22, 2023.

The only traditional new K-6 school to open this fall across Salt Lake and Utah counties is Desert Sky Elementary — drawing in roughly 1,000 Eagle Mountain area kids who had been attending nearby schools that were all at or overcapacity.

“In my son’s fifth-grade class, there were 38 students,” said Jill Webb, whose three oldest children started at Desert Sky last week. “My daughter, who was in third grade last year, was already out in a trailer.”

”It was actually pretty fun,” 11-year-old Easton Webb chimed in. “It was just always loud.”

Open less than a week, Desert Sky is nearing capacity already — school officials have had to add a portable classroom there, too.

Yet two other elementaries in the Alpine School district didn’t reopen this year — one illustration of the way Wasatch Front student populations are dropping and shifting. Seven elementary schools in Salt Lake and Utah counties were closed for the 2023-24 school year; eight others remain under study for possible future closure.

One is Mary W. Jackson Elementary School in the Salt Lake City School District, where students were welcomed to the first day of the year with a cheerful announcement over the PA system: “It is Tuesday, Aug. 22, and it’s a great day to be a Rocket!”

But parents there like Josh Gould wondered if they will be able to bring their kids back to the school next year, as Mary W. Jackson is one of the seven elementaries the district is considering for potential closure.

“It would break our hearts, my kids love this school,” Gould said. “My daughter … she’s got her best friends here. And there’s so many kids that go to the school that if they close the school, they’re not going to end up going to one school, everyone’s going to get spread out.”

‘We’ll just have to shove things around’

Construction began on Desert Sky only a year ago. The $35 million building sits off Pony Express Parkway in the Overland neighborhood, surrounded by new housing development.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New home construction goes up around Desert Sky Elementary, Eagle Mountain’s new elementary school on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.

It’s one of two schools that opened in Eagle Mountain this fall: John Hancock Charter School, which first opened in 2002 and has a school in Pleasant Grove, opened a new Eagle Mountain campus serving grades K-8.

Eagle Mountain’s population has boomed in the past five years, increasing from roughly 35,000 residents in 2018 to an estimated 54,000 in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And nearly half of those residents are under 18 years old, making for overcrowded schools that can’t right-size fast enough to keep up with the area’s growth.

The Webb family is among Eagle Mountain’s new residents, after moving in from Washington state two years ago.

Webb’s children had been attending Mountain Trails Elementary, and while some of their friends came with them to the new school, they were sad to leave others behind. The new school also drew from Blackridge and Hidden Hollow elementary schools.

“[My brother] got all of his friends,” said 9-year-old Jensen Webb. “I had to leave my best friend.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Desert Sky Elementary principal Aaron Stevenson visits with students on the playground of the new elementary school in Eagle Mountain on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.

On Monday, Assistant Principal Amanda Siebert observed, it was “officially day four, but we are already at school capacity. We have the space, we’ll just have to shove things around a little bit, but we have the space to make that happen.”

In June, the Alpine school board voted to close Sharon Elementary in Orem and Valley View Elementary in Pleasant Grove. Three other district elementary schools — Lehi, Lindon and Windsor — had initially been included in the closure study; the board removed them from consideration in July but expects to see closures ahead, members said.

Many of the district’s schools have significant seismic issues, meaning they would be unsafe in the event of an earthquake. In an effort to repair some of those schools and build new ones, the district proposed a nearly $600 million bond in 2022, which failed to garner voter support.

‘There’s some patterns to this’

At Mary W. Jackson Elementary Tuesday, teachers, school resource officers, and even new Superintendent Elizabeth Grant greeted families and students. Some parents walked with their children up to the school and into its gymnasium, where students picked up breakfast. Others dropped kids off in the tight parking lot, with hugs and kisses goodbye.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Elizabeth Grant, superintendent of Salt Lake School District watches as a new student wipes tears from her mother's face on the first day of school at Mary W. Jackson Elementary, August 22, 2023.

Many happily chatted with familiar teachers and administrators. Gould said his daughter had been looking forward to getting back to school and starting third grade: ”She’s beyond excited. She wanted to go to sleep at like five o’clock last night just so she could start today.”

For parents who feel like they are in limbo, the school’s teachers, principals and support staff are “here to educate kids this year,” Grant emphasized.

“School closure issues come from a different place, and from the district office, from the board of education, we’ll be looking at that,” she said. “The people here are involved in schooling children that are here, so that’s the focus.”

The seven schools Salt Lake City is examining for possible closure are Jackson, Emerson, Wasatch, Hawthorne, Bennion, Riley and Newman elementaries. The Granite School District is studying West Kearns Elementary School. Cities across the Wasatch Front are in “a hard time,” Grant said, with areas losing families and school-aged kids.

Some districts close schools periodically over many years, and that may be how her district could roll out closures or openings, she said, depending on what the enrollment data says.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gregoria Santillan ties the laces on the tennis shoes of her son Mark Santillian, 8, on the first day of school at Mary W. Jackson Elementary, August 22, 2023.

”We need to get more of a sense that this is movement, that there’s some patterns to this that are based on larger population and economic trends that affect all schools,” she said. “We’ll work through it and we’ll try and create the best community organizations and certainly the highest quality learning organizations that we can.”

‘Not seeing a ton of new growth’

The only school that closed in Salt Lake City School District is Salt Lake Virtual Elementary, an experiment that opened in 2021 as a two-year pilot using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, or ESSER funds, related to the pandemic.

In the Granite School District, students will not be returning this fall to Twin Peaks, Spring Lane and Millcreek elementary schools.

The board voted to close the schools in November due to declining student enrollment, said Granite spokesperson Ben Horsely. The district’s fall student population report for the 2022-23 school year showed it losing 1,255 kids across all grades.

And in the next 10 to 12 years, the district anticipates closing 10 to 12 more elementary schools, Horsely said. In the next few years, it may close up to six schools, he added.

“We’re just a mature school district, so we’re not seeing a ton of new growth,” he said. “Two of those elementary schools have less than 200 students in them.”

While West Kearns Elementary is currently under study for potential closure, the district is hoping to reopen one of its junior high schools “that was consolidated to accommodate ninth grade” years ago.

“We’ll go through our public input process,” Horsely said, regarding the school closure process moving forward. “We have some open houses already scheduled for the school closure consideration and some boundary changes we’ll be making.”