Katie Wagner: Salt Lake school closures feels reminiscent of ‘The Hunger Games’

I’m hoping for a plot twist.

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

The east bench outlines more than just the shoreline of ancient Lake Bonneville, it also defines an equity divide in Salt Lake City School District’s Population and Boundary Study. If you recall the basic plot of “The Hunger Games,” you’ll remember when the Capital of Panem forces tributes from each district to compete to death in the Hunger Games. In our case, Capital City is the Salt Lake City School District — and the tributes are the seven short-listed schools.

In the movie, Capital City is a utopian city filled with wealthy and powerful citizens and consequently does not sacrifice tributes in the games. None of the schools east of 1300 East are short-listed for closure in the SLCSD Population and Boundary Study, yet they educate the fewest economically disadvantaged and English learner students.

The 25% schools with the lowest percent of low-income students are: Ensign (1.28%), Bonneville (8.24%), Uintah (9.18%), Indian Hills (13.25%), Highland Park (17.04%), Beacon Heights (18.21%) and Dilworth (20.22%). Combined, these schools served 376 Free Lunch students, which is 7.5% of the total Free Lunch students served in the SLCSD in 2022.

Instead, the short-listed schools were selected west from the great divide in the central east and central west areas of SLCSD. Our tributes — Emerson, Hawthorne, Bennion, Riley, Jackson, Newman and Wasatch Elementaries — were reportedly identified through evaluation of all 27 SLCSD elementary schools, yet they are remarkably all geographically located west of the 25% most affluent neighborhoods and in two distinct lines that transect SLCSD, almost stacked like dominos, disproportionately impacting central east and central west neighborhoods.

In viewing data from the Utah School Report Card, the results are undeniable and eye-popping. Every mile traveled west from the east bench results in lower numbers of students reading at grade level, lower number of students maintaining consistent attendance, higher number of economically disadvantaged students and fewer schools reaching commendable and exemplary ratings. There are notable examples, of course, but the trend is painfully evident.

Capital City is left to continue business as usual while our tributes are scrambling to find our footing and state our defense to what appears to be partial district officials. Multiple families, including mine, have called for transparency on how all 27 SLCSD elementary schools were evaluated. In return we have received a vague evaluation spreadsheet which sheds little light on the scoring process.

How will our local Hunger Games end? Personally, I am hoping for a plot twist in which the disproportionately impacted precincts join forces and confront district officials for trying to ram through school closures in what appears to be a biased and inequitable process.

Perhaps it is time to stop sinking district resources into east bench schools and concentrate on supporting central east schools that maintain high school ratings and bridge central and east neighborhoods as well as central west schools that educate high numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

Katie Wagner

Katie Wagner is a community educator and proud parent of an Emerson Eagle student. She and her family reside in the Sugarhouse neighborhood and walk to Emerson Elementary each and every school day.

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