At 1:45 p.m. on a recent Friday afternoon, a dismissal bell chimed inside Wasatch Elementary, signaling the end of the school day.
Students soon swarmed out from Wasatch’s front doors, many running up to their parents or crossing a nearby intersection, headed home for the weekend. But at least a dozen stuck around, instead gathering with a separate group of parents wearing and handing out circular, yellow stickers that read “Keep Wasatch Elementary Open!”
Ten minutes later, they embarked with the roughly 20 waiting adults on the 40-minute, more than 1 mile uphill walk to Ensign Elementary School, where some may enroll should their recently National Blue Ribbon-designated school close.
Wasatch is one of seven elementaries that the Salt Lake City School District is studying for potential closure. If shuttered, the district would redraw new student boundaries that could instead send Wasatch students to Ensign, one of the “closest” options at about 1.4 miles away. But for many children, it’s a relatively far walk.
“Every school on the closure list except Wasatch has a nearby elementary school,” said Wasatch parent Julia Lyon.
Outside of Ensign, Washington Elementary is about 2.7 miles away from Wasatch. Bennion — which is slated for potential closure — is about 1.2 miles away. Beacon Heights is about 4 miles away, and Indian Hills is about 3.6 miles away.
“Many of us feel that by closing Wasatch, the district would be making it harder for these kids to access their education,” Lyon said to Salt Lake City school board members at a September meeting. “This is making their education less equitable.”
That’s why Lyon invited district officials and some board members alike to join the Friday walk, so they could see firsthand “what it would be like.”
‘It’s going to take time to get there’
As the group began heading north, crunching on the brown and yellow leaves on the sidewalk, many of the students scurried along — overflowing into nearby yards and onto park strip grass. A few held their parents’ hands as they walked.
Some, if not most, are used to walking to Wasatch each morning. The Central City school mostly draws students from the Lower Avenues all the way east toward the University of Utah campus, its northern end lined by the Salt Lake City Cemetery, according to the district’s current elementary boundary map.
Christine Pomeroy’s two children — a sixth grader and kindergartener — live about a block away from Wasatch.
Originally, Pomeroy didn’t plan to participate in the walk, because she thought her kindergartner, Oliver, “wasn’t going to make it,” in part because of his asthma.
“There’s no way he’ll be able to walk to Ensign, probably ever, if that becomes our school, just because of his medical challenges,” she said. “It’s the fact that it’s not just a mile-and-a-half of distance, but it’s also uphill.”
Her sixth grader, who was sick, did not participate in the walk. Neither did any of the school district officials who Lyon invited.
On one hand, Pomeroy said the potentially longer school commute could contribute to air pollution that already affects the city.
But for some families, an easier, shorter commute is a necessity, she said. According to the district, 37.2% of Wasatch students are considered low-income. Many have two working parents, Pomeroy added, which can make it difficult to get kids to and from school. Some don’t have vehicles at all.
“And it’s very difficult to get kids up to Ensign on public transit,” she said. Even if there are ways to bus students to the school, “it’s going to take time to get there.”
‘I wouldn’t want to walk all the way here’
The total elevation gain to Ensign that Friday afternoon was about 380 feet, according to Strava, an activity-tracking app.
But by the time the group reached the Salt Lake City Cemetery, before much of the significant elevation gain began, some kids were already running out of steam, including Pomeroy’s son Oliver, who expressed that he would still be able to finish the trip.
And it didn’t get much better as the ascent up L Street began.
Fifth-grader Ellie Edwards, who was also exhausted, said she felt the walk would be more difficult for younger kids, including her brother.
“I like walking to school a lot, but I wouldn’t want to walk all the way here,” she said.
Her father, David Edwards, said they live at the bottom of the hill on 100 South, which allows them to easily walk to Wasatch every day.
But if Wasatch were to close, it’d be difficult for his kids to get to whichever school they may end up at, since their family doesn’t own a car. And because of that, he said they’ll have to see how the new boundaries are redrawn before weighing their options.
“There’s the question of whether whatever school we end up in the boundaries of is a good fit for the kids, or whether we’ll look at some of the alternative charter schools and just opt out of the district,” he said. “But the worst part, that is not as obvious, is that our community is going to be gone, and Wasatch has such an amazing community.”
‘If you close it, they will leave’
As the group approached 9th Avenue on L Street, they were faced with another dilemma: If they kept going north, there would be no sidewalks until they reached Ensign. They could take a detour west to J Street instead, head north, then cut back east to Ensign on 11th Avenue — but it would add to the travel time.
The closest “safe route” to Ensign, I Street up to 11th Avenue, would have taken even longer, according to the Utah Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes mapping software, which outlines safer student walking or biking routes.
“What will the kids most likely do? Why don’t we do that?” David Edwards said to the group, who all agreed that the students would likely take the shortest, but more dangerous route — going up the no-sidewalk street.
The potential dangerous trek to Ensign or other schools made Pomeroy admit that if Wasatch closes, she may send her kids to private school. She recognizes not all families have the option.
Parents Will and Liel Rowley separately confessed that Wasatch is the only thing keeping them in the Avenues. For them, its closure could mean a move north to Davis County.
“It’s just more affordable,” Will Rowley said, acknowledging that such a move may not be feasible for other families, either.
District officials have emphasized that it remains unclear how many, if any, schools will close. Another 20 elementary schools are being studied for potential boundary changes as well.
But the afternoon walk to Ensign wasn’t just about testing a new route. It was about considering the reality that Wasatch’s closure may have on the community.
Will Rowley called it a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: If the district predicts it will have less students, there will be less students, he said.
His sister, another Wasatch parent, agreed.
“It’s like ‘Field of Dreams,’ if they build it, they will come,” Laura Rowley said. “If you close it, they will leave.”