Leah Jaramillo doesn’t live within the boundaries of Emerson Elementary in east central Salt Lake City. However, she chose to send her daughter there because of its programs and the community.
“It doesn’t look like a school that’s in jeopardy,” Jaramillo said. “It looks like a school that’s thriving.”
Over the summer, however, she learned that Emerson was one of seven schools the Salt Lake City School District was studying for potential closure. The others include Hawthorne Elementary, M. Lynn Bennion Elementary, Mary W. Jackson Elementary, Newman Elementary, Riley Elementary and Wasatch Elementary.
In the last eight years, the district’s enrollment has dropped about 30%, which means the district can’t meet its goal of having three teachers per grade in each elementary school.
Jaramillo is on Emerson’s School Community Council, so she knew this study was coming, but she was still surprised to see Emerson on the list. She said the school’s parents asked for data to understand why it was in line for possible closure.
The parents were sent a spreadsheet created by the district’s Boundary Options Committee. It listed all 27 elementary schools in the district and then analyzed each school based on several factors, including a school’s age, its operating costs, the area’s busy thoroughfares and neighborhood enrollment vs. total enrollment.
The last column on the spreadsheet lists a final score averaged from different working groups. District spokesperson Yándary Chatwin said the highest possible score was a 16, and all of the seven schools being studied for closure scored below 10.
But for Jaramillo and other Emerson parents who attempted to make sense of the data, those raw scores didn’t reveal much.
“When they did provide the data, they didn’t provide a summary of the data and they didn’t provide a rubric for how they scored the schools,” Jaramillo said. “So we were looking at a set of scoring sheets, but with no key.”
Jaramillo said if the district is going to ask for public comment, “you have to give them something to comment about.”
Another parent, Joey McNamee, has two kids at Emerson. She said of course closing a school will be emotional for a community, but it’s even harder if communities don’t understand why it’s happening.
“We don’t want Emerson to close because we can see a thousand reasons to keep it open. If you [the district] can give us a counterbalancing set of reasons for it to be closed, I think we can hear that, and we can grieve and move on. But with trust in our district about this process,” McNamee said.
McNamee sees Emerson as a safe space for lots of students, including LGBTQ+ kids. But she said it’s a lot easier to measure the age of a building than it is to quantify “a place that is a haven for kids who’ve been unsuccessful, who struggled in other locations.”
She is worried the district will write them off as a loud group of parents, instead of looking at why some families are so passionate.
“A group of loud parents is not a reason to keep a school open. [But] it is also a useful data point for the people who are making this decision,” McNamee said. “There is a thing worth fighting for and having the opportunity to be able to organize, to fight for it doesn’t mean it’s any less fighting for.”
During the public comment periods at recent district school board meetings, parents from Emerson and Wasatch elementaries have been the most vocal.
Nathan Humphries, the parent of two children at Riley Elementary on Salt Lake City’s west side, doesn’t want to discredit the fears of those parents. But he is concerned that the school board won’t close Emerson and Wasatch because of that response and that the other five schools will be the ones to go.
Humphries said there’s a big population in Riley that sometimes “gets left behind because of language barriers, because of culture barriers. And we just want them to get the attention.”
Salt Lake City Council District 2 member Alejandro Puy said even if fewer west side parents have spoken out at board meetings, Puy has heard from them, and they are not happy about their schools potentially closing.
Barriers exist for those parents to participate, too. Puy said some work multiple jobs, don’t speak English, might not understand the process of board meetings or would need to figure out child care in order to attend.
Closing schools on the west side would majorly impact families there because Puy said those schools are more than just schools; they are community centers. He said families have built bonds of trust with the staff over the years. If parents have questions about their immigration status or how to access services, Puy said they know they can ask school employees and be pointed in the right direction.
The school district is working with neighborhood groups to get more feedback from west side families, Chatwin said, and is planning on having at least one public information meeting completely in Spanish.
Humphries raves about his school’s principal and is sad to see Riley on the list. But he said he’d be OK with it closing if that means increasing resources for kids and their families, like having more staff who speak languages other than English.
While Humphries does have questions about resources and how this will affect safe transportation to school, some of those have not been answered yet since the district has not decided which schools to close.
Victoria Petro is the city council member for District 1 and her kids attend Mary W. Jackson Elementary. If Jackson closes, she’s concerned about the effect on transportation to school.
“When mothers walk their kids to my school, they’re not just walking their kids who attend the school. They’re walking their younger children. They are walking the children that they care for. They are carrying with them physical things and burdens,” Petro said. “Adjusting to a school a block away, or on the other side of the highway or on the other side of 300 West, it’s not as simple as ‘Oh, on Google Maps it doesn’t look that far.’”
And with an ongoing bus driver shortage, Petro said she doesn’t want to count on buses to fix the problem.
Petro said she has noticed a high rate of families at Jackson are new to the U.S., and her wanting to keep it open isn’t just about school pride, but about access to resources. Petro also doesn’t like the message it sends if kids have to leave their communities in order to “visit learning.”
“As with most things, west-siders are prepared to be the ones who have to make the sacrifice. But I'm really hoping that I'm proven wrong and that history does not repeat itself here,” Petro said.
The district has heard more from some schools than others, Chatwin confirmed, but she said it plans to take a fair look at all the schools. And if the district receives a concern from a parent at one school, Chatwin said they will look at the other six to see how that issue plays out there.
Chatwin added they do want to hear people’s questions and concerns. For example, the district heard from a lot of people who did not understand the school scoring sheet. Chatwin said they are working on a summary that breaks down all of the data and will post that information to their website.
“Sometimes it might make sense to use, but if we know that there’s still a question in the community, we can provide clarity,” Chatwin said.
The school board could vote to close any or all of the schools this winter. The earliest they would close is after the 2023-2024 school year.