It was a long time in coming, but the length of time still did not lessen the pain surrounding the closing of South High School.

The harbinger was four years ago when the Salt Lake Board of Education slammed shut the school district's door on open enrollment. South was the reason; it's dwindling student body was making it difficult to operate a full high school program."For every 28 students in the building, we get a teacher," explained South High School Principal LaVar Sorensen, who retires this spring after 13 years at South's helm.

"As enrollment goes down, you reduce teachers, and as you reduce teachers, you reduce course offerings. We had course offerings and teachers who could teach them, but in some of those upper division classes, we had only six or seven students," the principal said.

The student shortage could be traced to several roots.

The entire Salt Lake School District, not just South, has been faced with a declining enrollment as the valley's population growth shifted to the suburbs. In 1960, Salt Lake City had 40,865 school-age children. That had dropped to 23,426 by 1980. The current enrollment is 24,000.

"About 15 to 18 years ago, the district had 8,500 high school students. Now there is 5,800, but each of the city's four schools was built to handle 2,000 to 2,200 students," explained Sorensen, who worked for many years in the district's central office and helped close city elementary and junior high schools.

With room to handle more students, the other high schools, particularly East and Highland, could easily accept transfers from South. And transfer they did, although it was gradual, until the school board ended the flight out of South.

Sorensen blames the flight on two reasons. First, as dwindling enrollments forced closure of several Central City junior high schools, South-bound students were moved to east side Hillside and Clayton Intermediate Schools.

"They made friends there, so they wanted to go with their friends to East and Highland," he said.

The other reason has been called "white-bright flight," students fleeing from South's large minority population, which averages 36 percent, to what they perceived as more academically advantaged east-side schools.

"In the minds of a lot of people, where you have minority students or where you have low-income students, that means the educational program has been depleted," Sorensen said.

The principal believes this view is unfortunate. He thinks South's diversity is its strength.

"South radiates a comprehensive high school. That is what it should be. It's not a prep school. The students who leave here are prepared to go into a vocational program, into a trade school, a medical technology program, a business school or a university," he said.

About 80 percent of South students go on to post-secondary education, and of that number, 30 percent go to college.

In 1983-84, the year the board moved to stop the drain of South students, South High was honored by the U.S. Education Department was one of the nation's top 200 high schools.

But the school board later decided that it had to close one of the city's four high schools in an effort to achieve minority and numerical equity and to meet the Legislature's 70 percent capacity rule. The ax fell on South.

The decision to close South upset the students, parents and its 30,000 alumni. But once the decision was made, the focus shifted away from South to the other schools and the fight over their boundaries.

"Our students are saying, `Let's get on with it,' " Sorensen said. "I think this last year has allowed this transition to take place. It should move very smoothly."