February 19, 1019; Deseret News
Whenever a school district plans to close a neighborhood school, you can count on opposition. Opposition will come from families whose children are currently enrolled in that school, teachers and other staff at the school, neighbors worried about property values, local businesses in the area, and other social service organizations in the community that will be concerned about the safety and transition issues that such a move will cause for these children and their families. It is never an easy or simple decision. But there are certain factors that almost always seem to be among the reasons for choosing which schools are targeted for closing.
In Salt Lake City, Utah, this is what took place at the school board meeting last week, with parents, teachers, alumni, and others from the community urging the board not to act on a recommendation to close the M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School. The school, when looked at using its data and statistics, seems a prime candidate for closure.
According to a presentation to the board, Bennion Elementary, which is a Title I school, has a declining enrollment, has relatively high fixed costs, and it was recently placed under school turnaround for declining academic performance. Next year, the school’s anticipated enrollment will be just over 200. A number of elementaries in the school district serve threefold that many students.
The Salt Lake City school district has become predominantly Latinx in the last few years. Bennion, with its small enrollment is 42.7 percent Latinx and 30 percent white, according to the school district. Overall, the district is 36.9 percent Latinx and 43.8 percent white.
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Schools in low-income areas are also often closed. Writing for the American Bar Association back in 2016, Katherine Gladson addresses this issue:
School districts nationwide have generally offered two main reasons for closing schools: (1) low academic performance or (2) underutilization of school building space, or a combination of low academic performance and underutilization. Applying these two bases has consistently resulted in schools from low-income communities (rather than those from middle- or upper-income communities) being disproportionately closed or restructured.
For the students and families at Bennion, it is a double whammy. The school serves children who live in transitional housing at the nearby YMCA’s crisis shelter. Bennion has built a trusted relationship with the over 80 children and their families who live in unstable situations, often with protective orders to keep them from an abusive parent. Bennion has been part of that protective system for these families. In presenting their arguments for keeping their school open, the data on the school’s enrollment showed it to be 98 percent low-income (free and reduced lunch). When compared to other schools in the district, this was the highest-need school.
No decision was made by the school board on this closing…yet. Based on the comments, some members were moved to dig a bit deeper and look at this particular school with a new perspective, one going beyond the data. But when it is time for a decision, the data and costs may trump the needs of a small number of children and families.
What will happen if these 200+ elementary children are dispersed to other schools in the area? The data from other school closings are mixed, but more often, the children fall farther behind and lose the anchor of a neighborhood place that knows them well. Are there other options for this school district? Will Salt Lake City do its homework?—Carole Levine