As student enrollment has increased in Utah, the Salt Lake City School District has seen thousands of students leave its schools in the past three years, Superintendent Lexi Cunningham said Thursday.
Elementary schools are particularly affected by the enrollment decline. The problem is most pronounced at M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School, where enrollment is roughly one-third the maximum capacity of 600 students.
On Tuesday, the district announced it was considering closing Bennion, leaving many worried about how that will affect the 213 students, many of whom are from vulnerable populations.
The district doesn’t survey families who leave the district so officials don’t know for certain why this happening. But in east Salt Lake City, rising housing costs might be making it hard from families to live in the area, Cunningham said.
Cunningham visited Bennion’s School Community Council meeting on Thursday to address parents’ concerns and assure them that what was said at the school board’s Tuesday meeting was only a recommendation.
“There was no action taken at the board,” Cunningham said. “For the rest of this year and the rest of next year, no change is taking place.”
“It’s important for kids to have a sense of normalcy, and it’s important to have this school in our community,” said Mirielle Ligh, the mother of a student at the Head Start program housed at Bennion.
Ligh lives with her three children at the YWCA Utah, a nearby shelter for domestic violence victims.
Nearly all Bennion students are from low-income households. More than half the students are from minority groups and about 24 percent of Bennion’s students are experiencing homelessness, including some who have also experienced domestic violence.
Ligh knows many families at the YWCA with children who also attend Bennion. The school’s proximity to the shelter is convenient for them, she said. Ligh said she worries about what will happen to families like hers if the Salt Lake City School Board decides to close the school.
Low enrollment has been a problem in east Salt Lake City in the past. When looking to cut costs, the district closed Rosslyn Heights Elementary and Lowell Elementary because of low student enrollment in that area. The building now houses the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts and Salt Lake City Open House charter schools.
The district will spend six to eight months reviewing the recommendation. In that time, the district will evaluate the boundaries of other schools and confer with their school community councils. It will also hold public meetings and open houses to receive feedback from parents, Cunningham said.
“Binnion will have a voice as well as other schools in the process,” she said.
During this time period, Bennion will have the opportunity to present ideas on what it can do to bring students back to its classroom.
One idea under consideration is growing Bennion’s science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, weekly program into official curriculum, said Carrie Chalverus, the school community council chair. That move would allow it to become a feeder school for Bryant Middle School, which will become a STEM-focused school in the next several years.
Chalverus said that conversations have already begun with Bryant school officials.
“I think some exciting conversations are going to happen in the next few weeks to talk about those types of options to help invigorate the school,” she said.
The district will present a final recommendation to the school board by December.