It’s a Monday night. I’m sitting in a crowded auditorium at Glendale Middle School, a few doors down from where I grew up, more than 30 years ago, on the west side of Salt Lake. The auditorium is full of anxious families, holding handwritten signs, waiting to hear if their child’s school will be on the list for recommended closure.
Earlier this fall, the Salt Lake City School District studied seven elementary schools for possible closure; one of which was Riley Elementary, the elementary school I attended when I was young. My own children’s school was not on the list, yet I felt compelled to attend the community meeting to hear which schools would be proposed for closure and the district’s reasoning behind it.
Even though I knew my children’s east-side school was safe, I couldn’t help but empathize with the distress and emotions of so many families in the room. As I sat in that auditorium, I reflected on how I got there, how my family’s atypical journey got us to Utah and how our reliance on this very public education system afforded us the opportunities to grow and build what we have.
My family, refugees from Vietnam, arrived in California in the spring of 1983. The nine of us, my parents, four brothers, two sisters and I, lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the projects in Oakland. My mother worked as a dishwasher and a seamstress. My father delivered newspapers while studying to be an auto mechanic at the local community college.
In 1987, four years after arriving in the U.S., my father was killed during an armed robbery as he was coming home. At 35 years old, my mother was now a widow with seven children under the age of 15, in a country where she did not speak the language. In the aftermath of that devastating loss, we struggled to navigate our way in our new country.
My mother’s cousin, who lived in Utah, encouraged her to visit and see if it was a better place to raise her children. We moved to Utah in the summer of 1992 and settled in Glendale. It was a new start. A new home.
My mother relentlessly emphasized the importance of education and doing well in school as our only way of “making something of ourselves.” When I was getting ready to graduate from Riley Elementary, my 6th grade teacher, Ms. Floyd, told my family I might be best served if I asked for a special transfer to Bryant Jr. High on Salt Lake’s east side. So that’s where I went to middle school, carpooling with another family in my neighborhood to get to school every day.
For high school, I took a 20-minute bus ride to East High School, located on the east bench of Salt Lake. This was the assigned high school for the Glendale area.
Attending schools that were not in my immediate community wasn’t easy. There were numerous challenges beyond keeping up academically and making my mother proud. I couldn’t participate in any extra-curricular activities after school because I wouldn’t be able to get a ride home. I didn’t know very many of my classmates, many of whom had known each other since grade school. The few friends I did make lived too far away to hang out with outside of school. And yet, the biggest challenge was always feeling like an outsider – the feeling of not belonging to the community where I attended school. These challenges may seem trivial, but we now know how crucial a student’s social-emotional well-being is for their development.
My school situation was not easy, but I am thankful for the quality public education I received. I am thankful for the teachers and administrators who cared about me and tried to level the playing field for me when they could. When it was time for college, I was grateful that I was able to afford to go to the University of Utah with the help of Pell Grants. As my mother predicted, education was the platform on which I was able to make something of myself.
It is never an easy decision to have to close schools and relocate families. The burden is now on the school district to not only consider the educational needs of these students but also ensure students and families are welcomed and successfully integrated into their new schools.
As a parent and community member, I’m looking for ways we can all collectively support all impacted stakeholders during this challenging time. Utah has drastically changed since I was a young girl in this school system, but the common chord has always been that we care deeply about our youth. Every student in this state deserves a quality education that is accessible and allows them to grow and thrive.
Hoang Nguyen is co-founder and managing partner of Sapa Investment Group. Hoang serves on several boards including Visit Salt Lake, PBS, Salt Lake Airport and Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center.
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