A Salt Lake City school flagged for potential closure lands on National Blue Ribbon School list

Wasatch Elementary is one of two schools in the state that were named as recipients this year.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wasatch Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 25, 2023. The Salt Lake City school was named this week as a 2023 National Blue Ribbon School.

As officials study Wasatch Elementary for potential closure, the Salt Lake City school was named this week as a 2023 National Blue Ribbon School — one of only two in Utah this year to receive the designation.

The Blue Ribbon School designation is awarded to schools under two categories, according to the Department of Education: schools that are among their state’s “highest-performing schools,” using state assessments or national testing; or schools that are high-performing but also “closing achievement gaps.”

The second Utah school that received the recognition this year was Milford Elementary School in the Beaver County School District, located in southern Utah.

In a statement Tuesday, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said the schools honored this year have “set a national example for what it means to Raise the Bar in education.”

“The leaders, educators, and staff at our National Blue Ribbon Schools continually inspire me with their dedication to fostering academic excellence and building positive school cultures that support students of all backgrounds to thrive academically, socially, and emotionally,” the statement continued.

Wasatch Elementary in particular received “exemplary” state ratings in academic achievement during the 2021-2022 school year, having more students proficient in language arts, math and science compared to the rest of the district and state, according to the Utah State Board of Education. In the 2022-2023 school year, the school saw a slight increase in proficiency in language arts, while seeing a decrease in proficiency in math and science but still staying above district and state averages.

“This award is a testament to the hard work of the educators and administrators at Wasatch, and we’re immensely proud of all they’re doing to help our students succeed,” district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said in a statement. “With their commitment to an arts education for each student (including instruction in drama, dance, music, and visual arts), high-quality instruction from Wasatch teachers, strong leadership from school administration, and solid community support, the Wasatch community is more than deserving of this national recognition.”

Among the school’s achievements, which parents and board members have praised, include its fully-integrated arts program — sustained through state funding and work with nonprofits such as Odyssey House, which provides support for students whose family members are dealing with substance misuse.

The school also has a significant population of students — 30% — who come from a low-income background, as of October 2022.

“This award doesn’t just show the success in their building, but the success of their leadership teams and community,” board member Ashley Anderson said during a meeting Tuesday night, referencing a message she received from the the school’s Community Council chair.

Parents advocate to keep Wasatch open

Out of the seven schools that the district is currently studying for potential closure, three have previously been named National Blue Ribbon Schools — Wasatch, Emerson and Hawthorne elementary schools.

Emerson parents have used the recognition as one of the many reasons they say their school should remain open. Others attending school board meetings have touted Wasatch Elementary’s strengths as reasons to take it off the study list, voicing the negative impact closing it could have on the community.

“For 30 years, arts-based education thrived at Wasatch,” said Julie Miller — a former district educator and principal for 36 years who ended her career at Wasatch — at a board meeting earlier this month. “It’s a learning framework based on the community partners, including thought, school and business leaders; arts experts; school networks; teachers; students; and generations of parents, both past and present.”

“Wasatch built it, they shared it, they came, and they still come,” Miller continued.

This week’s announcement marked the second time Wasatch has received the Blue Ribbon School designation, the first being in 1990. It’s not a surprise to parents like Debbie Hummel, who said the school “does an excellent job of meeting every kid where they are.”

“It’s been a Blue Ribbon School to me for years now,” said Hummel, president of Wasatch Elementary’s PTA and parent of a fourth-grader there.

Many parents at the schools, including Hummel, have recognized that the district is in a hard spot. But some also feel as though certain factors are being considered more than others, such as the age of the buildings. According to the district’s scoresheet of how they ranked each school for further study, Wasatch Elementary was last rebuilt over 40 years ago.

“I think this is the perfect example of just looking at buildings, which seems to be the primary focus of the study and seems to be the primary reason that this school got low grades ... that that doesn’t cover what is actually happening in the building,” said Hummel. The district has emphasized throughout the process and at meetings that no one factor was weighed over others when deciding which schools were studied for potential closure.

Hummel hopes the district will consider Wasatch’s latest Blue Ribbon School designation as it continues its study.

“It seems to me that there’s a part of this process that should be looking at the community, in the school — the programs that it provides for all its students; the real gem that it is to the district,” Hummel said.