Commentary: Closing Bennion Elementary would disrupt essential services

“Excellence and Equity: every student, every classroom, every day.”

Thus reads the Salt Lake City School District Vision Statement posted prominently on the district’s website. A vision statement helps define an institution’s purpose, and is a reflection of its values. What’s more, it gives the community the institution serves a way to assess institutional directionality and impact. I think now is as an important time as ever to determine whether the Salt Lake City School District (SLCSD) is living up to the vision it has for Salt Lake City, the thousands of children in their care, and the communities they play an integral part of.

The Salt Lake City School Board is currently considering closing down M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School. In September, the district tasked the Building Utilization Committee (BUC) with determining how best to utilize the physical spaces controlled and operated by the district in view of years of declining enrollment.

As a public school educator, and someone who places great value in the role public institutions play in a community’s education, socialization, and culturalization, I am concerned about the possibility of closing a school, and in particular a school like Bennion Elementary.

The school is named after M. Lynn Bennion, a former Salt Lake City School Superintendent whose family has a long history of dedication to public education in Utah. At the time of his death in 1998, he was remembered as a “dignified and sincere individual ... a champion for doing everything he could for the children of the state of Utah.” Despite coming from “a more traditional background,” he worked hard to adapt to the needs and wants of children from “diverse cultural backgrounds.”

Bennion Elementary School is perhaps the single greatest example of the way Salt Lake City has changed in the last three decades, and its presence in the community reflects the work its namesake, M. Lynn Bennion, spent dedicated to improving the lives of children.

The school is currently the center of the community for a little over 200 children, 65 percent of whom are students of color, 98 percent of whose families are living in poverty and 23 percent of whom are homeless.*

There can be little doubt of the role Bennion Elementary plays in providing these children a safe place to learn, play, socialize and receive at least two meals a day. Now, one of the central stabilizing forces in the lives of Bennion’s students may be on the verge of collapse.

The current situation the district finds itself in is eerily similar to the experiences of Chicago Public Schools in 2015-2016, documented by Eve Ewing in her recent book Ghosts in the Schoolyard. Ewing notes in her book that when CPS closed over 50 schools in 2015, it was under the pretext of a “utilization crisis.”

One key point Ewing makes is that “a fight for a school is never just about a school. A school means the potential for stability in an unstable world, the potential for agency in the face of powerlessness, the enactment of ones dreams and visions for one’s own children.”

Closing Bennion Elementary would mean losing a piece of Salt Lake City’s history, and severely disrupt necessary, even lifesaving, services for students and their families. The Salt Lake City School District and school board have a chance to rise to the power of their vision statement.

There is a real opportunity to ensure that the district remains excellent to the children and families it serves as it considers the impact of this policy decision, and continues to provide equitable access to educational and lifesaving resources to every student, in every classroom, every day.

Nathan Tanner

Nathan Tanner, Cottonwood Heights, teaches school social studies at Northwest Middle School in the Salt Lake City School District.