See which 4 schools the Salt Lake City School District thinks should close — and why

The initial list presented Monday is not final. There’s still time to voice questions, concerns.

(The Salt Lake Tribune) Clockwise from top left: M. Lynn Bennion Elementary, Hawthorne Elementary, Mary W. Jackson Elementary and Riley Elementary have each been recommended for closure by the Salt Lake City School District.

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Superintendent Elizabeth Grant recommended late Monday that four Salt Lake City elementary schools shut down next year, following months of study, school leadership meetings and community input.

The four Salt Lake City School District schools initially recommended for closure are Bennion, Hawthorne, Mary W. Jackson and Riley elementaries.

“I want to recognize the gravity of these choices in recommending these schools for closure, and with that, the courage of the board in making difficult choices that serve the long-term health and success of our district,” Grant said Monday evening. “Closing schools is difficult.”

The district studied three other elementary schools for potential closure, but Wasatch, Emerson and Newman were spared from Grant’s initial recommendations Monday night.

“It became really clear we could not close all seven schools without overburdening the rest of the schools,” district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said of the study.

The list presented to board members Monday evening is not final. The district will hold a public hearing Dec. 5, where community members can voice their questions and concerns.

Board members then will vote on a final decision as early as Jan. 9, Chatwin told The Salt Lake Tribune.

How the 7 schools were studied for potential closure

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City school board vice president Bryce Williams and Superintendent Elizabeth Grant listen to an Emerson Elementary School parent speak during public comment at a board meeting on Aug. 1, 2023.

The district on Monday also proposed significant school boundary changes to account for the recommended campus closures, shifting where 14 other schools may draw students from next year — including the three spared from Grant’s initial recommendations.

Officials in that 52-page report also outlined how the initial four schools were recommended for closure, noting that with the exception of Riley, all other flagged schools were studied in pairs: Wasatch and Bennion; Emerson and Hawthorne; and Newman and Mary W. Jackson.

The pairings were intentional, so officials could compare schools located relatively close to each other, then potentially only recommend shutting down one. “It was not in the best interest of our students to close two schools that were in close proximity to each other,” Chatwin said.

Those pairs — plus Riley — were then compared using 40 different data points, including student enrollment and residential population; proximity and availability of other neighborhood schools; and strategic placement of district-wide programs.

Ultimately, one school in each pair was recommended for closure, along with Riley.

Bennion Elementary

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bennion Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

Bennion was compared to Wasatch during the study. Both saw outliers when it came to each school’s estimated “remaining useful life of a building” — identified as 17 years and 13 years, respectively.

Bennion was noted to have a low student population (156 students this year), as well as a projected drop in students who live within current school boundaries by the 2026-2027 school year. In addition, 48% of students who live within its current boundaries chose to transfer to other schools last year, the report noted.

Four out of Bennion’s seven grade levels also only have one available class, the study found, which “does not allow for choices at grade levels for students and families or collaboration opportunities for teachers.”

Wasatch, on the other hand, has 333 students currently enrolled and draws students from outside its boundaries. About 26% of students who live within its current boundaries choose to attend another school, according to Grant’s presentation Monday, but the amount of elementary students in the area is projected to increase by 2026-2027.

Bennion’s proximity to potentially dangerous major thoroughfares — 700 East and 400 South — was another factor the district considered when recommending it for closure.

According to the draft boundary adjustments, students at Bennion would be reassigned to either Emerson, Liberty, Uintah and Wasatch elementaries.

In 2019, a committee of district employees and parents had previously suggested closing Bennion. But community members pushed back, noting it was one of the most diverse in the city and the state. The board decided not to close Bennion at the time.

Hawthorne Elementary

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

If Hawthorne and Emerson were not in such close proximity, their outlying factors “would have probably warranted recommending both of them for closure,” Chatwin said.

Both campuses have relatively few years left of “estimated remaining life” — 15 for Emerson and 23 for Hawthorne. Hawthorne only had 224 students living in its boundaries this year compared to Emerson’s 277, with Hawthorne’s residential enrollment projected to decrease to 190 by 2026-2027.

The district also estimated that 90 Hawthorne students currently have to cross 700 East to get to school, a potential danger.

About 57% of Emerson’s classrooms also have no exterior windows, the report noted, adding that should it close, three other nearby schools could take on its students.

But Emerson is what the district calls a HUB school, which serves students with disabilities “whose placement is in an academic support unit or behavior support unit special class.”

Moving the program would “create a significant disruption for one of the district’s most vulnerable populations.” That, combined with the fact that the district recently installed solar panels at Emerson, led officials to recommend Hawthorne for closure.

Students from Hawthorne would be reassigned to Emerson and Whittier elementaries, according to the draft boundary adjustments.

Mary W. Jackson Elementary

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parents and students walk to class on the first day of school at Mary W. Jackson Elementary, August 22, 2023.

Mary W. Jackson has five schools within a 1.5-mile radius of its campus. If it were to close, students would have several walkable alternatives that would not require them to cross a major thoroughfare, the study found.

If Newman were to close, students would have two walkable alternatives.

Mary W. Jackson also has 18 years of estimated “remaining useful life,” but Newman has 38, the document states. At Mary W. Jackson, 40% of the classrooms also do not have windows.

The school does have higher enrollment than Newman — 337 compared to 224 — but 218 of Mary W. Jackson’s students attend the district’s Dual Language Immersion (DLI) program.

That program would be moved to Newman, according to the district’s initial recommendations, which the district hopes will increase Newman’s enrollment. Newman also has a “collaborative Pre-K” program that would be hard to relocate, officials noted.

Students from Mary W. Jackson would be reassigned to Backman, Rose Park, and Washington elementaries, according to the draft boundary adjustments.

Riley Elementary

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Riley Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 25, 2023.

Riley enrolls fewer than 200 students a year, and 41% of its neighborhood students have chosen to transfer to other schools, the study found.

The campus also has two schools within a 1.5-mile radius — Parkview and Mountain View elementaries — which the district stated in its report “could easily welcome the Riley student population into their school communities.”

Its building does have 37 years of “remaining useful life,” though the document stated that Parkview and Mountain View both have more.

Riley students would be reassigned to Edison, Franklin, Mountain View and Parkview elementaries, according to the draft boundary adjustments.

What about special programs?

(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 district on Monday also proposed where existing and new special programs across district schools would be placed, should the four recommended elementaries close.

For example, the district recommends the opening of a Magnet Gifted & Talented Extended Learning Program on the city’s west side at Edison Elementary, and shifting magnet programs at schools like Hawthorne — along with Mary W. Jackson’s DLI program — to other schools.

Emerson is not recommended for closure but would see changes to its current special program setup. It’s a HUB school, but also houses a combined Magnet/DLI program, where students have to test into the Magnet program before attending the DLI program.

Under the draft proposal, that combined program would instead be shifted to Nibley Park School, and all students currently enrolled would be allowed to continue in the program there through sixth grade. The report explains the proposed change is linked to the district’s “foundational decision that a school should only house one special district program.”

In the meantime, the district would stop offering the combined program to new students and instead establish a separate, open enrollment DLI program at Nibley Park for first and second graders in 2024-2025, according to the proposal.

Why is the district looking to close schools?

In the last eight years, the district has lost almost 4,000 K-6 students, according to Brian Conley, the district’s boundaries and planning director. That drain has led to imbalanced enrollment across elementary campuses, especially as demographers project an aging population in Salt Lake City.

Four out of seven elementary schools on the study list for example saw “significant” dips in student enrollment in the last year, according to the district: Mary W. Jackson lost 10.6% of its students; Newman lost 10.8%; Riley lost 9%; and Hawthorne lost 12.4%.

The decision to potentially close campuses has mostly aimed to “right-size” schools, which district officials have continued to emphasize at meetings. “Right-sizing” means having around three teachers per grade level at a given school, with around 25 students per classroom, according to the district.

Officials have said “right-sizing” will result in more opportunities across the district, such as school field trips that require a certain class size, giving parents more teacher choices per grade, or even more Title I funding for certain campuses.

Last December, state auditors criticized the district for spending money to keep schools open that were losing students, costing taxpayers millions of dollars. The last time the district physically closed campuses was in 2002, when Lowell and Rosslyn Heights elementaries were shuttered.

Chatwin said in a September information session that the district had already been exploring the possibility of a school population and boundary study before the state audit was released.

“The legislative audit just kind of echoed the need that was already there,” Chatwin said.

None of the district’s recommendations released Monday are final. Chatwin said the Salt Lake City School Board could still give the district “different directions” to consider.

“There’s also the possibility that, as we hear from members of the public, on our online forum or in the public hearing [on Dec. 5], that they’ll point some things [out] to us that maybe we’ve missed,” she said.

The public hearing Dec. 5 is currently scheduled for West High School at 6:30 p.m.