Commentary: Bennion Elementary does wonders with a challenging student population

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) School counselor Caisa Pope with students in the after school program at Salt Lake City's Bennion Elementary, which might be closing due to low enrollment. The school district is holding a meeting Tuesday Feb. 19, 2019 to discuss the issue and hear from parents.

In Utah, we like to say we love our kids. But, we won’t spend money to educate them. We stack them deep and we teach them cheap.

Now a Salt Lake school is marked for closure due to “declining enrollment” and “low outcome ratings.” This assessment is according to the Salt Lake City School Board’s Building Utilization Committee.

The M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School is so marked. It is a downtown city school whose child population is mostly of low-income, diverse and immigrant parents. Its district also includes children of the YWCA’s Women’s Shelter, children who may be traumatized.

When I learned my great-granddaughter had to attend this school I was concerned. An effort to enroll in a nearby school, in another district, was rejected. It was full. We had no choice but Bennion Elementary. Her parents are young and of low income. I am white, middle-class, with a master’s degree and I come from several generations of educated professionals. I worried the academics at Bennion would be sub-par.

I quickly learned my pre-judgement was wrong. Bennion teachers have nailed quality education, which is especially impressive with the challenges the diverse and low-income children may bring to their classrooms. These teachers work magic not only with academically challenged students, but they also manage to challenge the scholars.

I have observed the teaching is both excellent and loving. The children are happy in an encouraging and disciplined atmosphere. My great-granddaughter, who showed signs of a scholar as young as age 2, thrives at Bennion. She also learns an intangible lesson, to respect and form friendships with others, no matter their race, ethnic origin or language skills. Isn’t this a bit of heaven on earth?

Yes, it is a diverse and, therefore, a difficult population, which will affect “outcome ratings.”

Yes, it is a downtown school with a transient, declining family population.

All the more reason to preserve a school that already has the ideal small classroom sizes. These small classes significantly enable experienced teachers to educate and manage issues these children can bring with them.

Therefore, I conclude with this verbal arithmetic: Declining enrollment = smaller class numbers = a necessary condition for educating this district’s children.

One could see this school as a lemon, but we who know the school see it as lemonade.

Why must we keep choosing to stack them deep and teach them cheap?

Why can’t we love all kids, even though it costs more to educate a challenging group?

If the money is not spent now, it will likely be spent later by society when helping those trapped in poverty, when providing prisons and, worst of all, when causing unrealized potentials of “those least among us.” (Didn’t Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha tell us to help these groups?)

Aren’t we creating a bit of hell on earth if we don’t educate this challenged group?

Let us remember: Steve Jobs was an immigrant’s child, as I was several generations ago. Diversity creates a vibrant, rich community. If we choose to value diversity.

Bennion is a Title I School. This means children from low-income families make up at least 40 percent of enrollment. The school is eligible for federal funds to operate programs for raising the success of the lowest-achieving students. Even the higher-achieving scholars benefit from these funds. Under Principal Dahlia Cordova’s direction, Bennion’s team absolutely honors diversity, inclusion and equity while providing quality education.

To support the continuance of Salt Lake City’s Bennion Elementary School there are several ways you can help. You can call or write your school board representative. Their emails can be found at www.slcschools.org. Or, if you choose to support with your time and talents, you can leave your contact information with Bennion office staff (801-578-8108).

Finally, if donating money is your preference, please visit the Salt Lake Education Foundation’s website www.saltlakeeducationfoundation.org, or call James Yapias at 801-578-8268. You need to designate your donations specifically to Bennion for whatever use you choose. I prefer to donate towards financial recognition of this special group of teachers and staff.

Mary Aa

Mary Aa, Salt Lake City, is a retired prison educator and Salt Lake County employee, with a master’s degree in management from the University of Utah. Her great-granddaughter has attended Bennion Elementary for almost two years.