‘Scary and overwhelming’: Students, parents plead to keep Salt Lake City schools open

A final decision on school closures could come as early as Jan. 9.

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Council member Victoria Petro urges school board members to vote down the Salt Lake City School District's recommendation to close four elementary schools during a board meeting at West High School on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Salt Lake City Council member Victoria Petro walked up to the microphone Tuesday night, about to argue why she feels Salt Lake City School District board members should not shut down the four elementary schools recently recommended for closure.

She stood there not just as a west-side leader who represents District 1 — where one of the four schools, Mary W. Jackson, sits — but also as a mother of two children who currently attend the elementary.

“The framework presented was faulty, and the future outcomes related to closing Mary W. Jackson are not in the best interest of our students,” Petro said.

Petro was one of two City Council members who spoke at the Tuesday board meeting, which included a public hearing on the potential school closures. And she was one of many community members — including students — who came to fight for their schools.

Last month, Superintendent Elizabeth Grant announced that Mary W. Jackson, Riley, Bennion and Hawthorne elementaries had all been recommended for closure, following a monthslong study. She also presented potential boundary changes for 14 elementary schools in the district. And the proposal included a rundown of where certain special district programs could shift if schools close.

“This is going to be hard. This will cause disruption. I want the community to know that we heard you in that and have taken notes,” Grant said after the Tuesday hearing. “It’s important to acknowledge how much schools matter as connections for community and families.”

Students could be split up from friends

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hawthorne Elementary fifth grader Zoe Budnik shares why she thinks Salt Lake City school board members should leave her school open during a hearing at West High School on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Petro, like other parents who spoke Tuesday, instead advocated for funding updates to Mary W. Jackson, explaining that, even if the school is losing students, it’s not a reason to close its campus.

According to October 2023 enrollment numbers, the school has around 337 students. By comparison, nearby schools like Rose Park and Newman — both not on the recommended closure list — have 274 and 224 students, respectively.

“Keeping Mary W. Jackson open would ensure the growing area around it continues being an activity hub for our young people and their families,” she said. “It’s woefully short-sighted to decentralize their academic and social experiences.”

The shifting of students’ social experiences — potentially splitting them up into different schools — was a concern many elementary students voiced to board members.

“Not all my friends would go to the school I would attend,” said Hawthorne fifth grader Zoe Budnik. “This would be sad and disappointing to a lot of kids at other schools, too.”

Former Hawthorne students also showed up, including Natalia Costanzo, who said the elementary school still has life in it.

“Considering most kids have known each other since kindergarten, this can be a very big change for younger kids or even fifth graders,” she said. “To those kids, it may be scary and overwhelming.”

Many parents were also worried about how their kids may be treated at new schools, should their elementaries close. Mary W. Jackson School Community Council chair Chris Porter said students could be bullied or not “welcomed.”

If Mary W. Jackson closes, students are currently slated to go to Backman, Rose Park and Washington elementaries. Bennion students are slated to go to Emerson, Liberty, Uintah and Wasatch; Hawthorne students to Emerson and Whittier; and Riley kids to Edison, Franklin, Mountain View and Parkview.

Even further school shakeups under the district’s proposed boundary changes could result in unfair student treatment, too, Porter added.

“I hope you consider that in your adjustments, and making sure that on a district level, that we’re looking at the best interest for the students that are being impacted,” he said.

That’s why City Council member Sarah Young asked officials Tuesday to be “proactive” in providing on-site and personalized support for students and families going through potential transitions.

“I believe this investment is necessary to assist our families in navigating these changes and making clear plans for the future of the children,” Young said.

‘Bring children back to Salt Lake City’

(Michael Lee | The Salt Lake Tribune) A paper doll chain with the phrase "Bring Back Children to Salt Lake" is held up by two parents at a Salt Lake City school board meeting at West High School on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

A common theme throughout the Tuesday hearing was criticism of the district and city for losing students.

In the past eight years, the district lost almost 4,000 K-6 students alone, Brian Conley, the district’s boundaries and planning director, has said. Meanwhile, surrounding counties — such as Davis and Utah — are projected to see an increase in their school-age populations within the next few decades, according to recent research from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Still, demographers have predicted that across Utah, there will be 40,000 fewer school-age students in the next nine years.

Salt Lake City parent Josh Stewart, who works as an architect, noted Tuesday that the school district potentially closing four campuses while the city has added “thousands” of new apartment units in the last few years “shows a failure by leadership statewide.”

“We need leaders to speak up and enable the work to be done to bring children back to Salt Lake City,” Stewart said, calling for more “child-friendly housing, child-friendly streets and child-friendly parks.”

Board member Kristi Swett acknowledged that “as a partner with the city, we need to demand that our master plans are thinking about our families and being child-friendly.”

“Over and over again tonight, we heard Salt Lake City is not family-friendly, it’s not child-friendly,” she said. “We have to own part of that.”

Parents also called for more transparency as the district looks to close schools. Many remained confused about why certain schools were recommended for closure over others, and what boundary adjustments may mean for their children.

Swett admitted that if community members and at least one City Council leader aren’t clear on the process moving forward, “we’re not communicating it very well.”

“Going forward, whatever the decision is made, that piece is important,” she said. “When we leave families to try and navigate through this on their own, there’s going to be frustration, there’s going to be misunderstanding.”

Board members are expected to vote on whether to approve the recommendations as early as the board’s Jan. 9 meeting. The meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m. in West High School’s auditorium.