SALT LAKE CITY — Parents, teachers and young professionals who were alumni of M. Lynn Bennion Elementary School urged the Salt Lake City Board of Education Tuesday to spare the school from a building utilization committee's recommendation to close the school.
The school board took no action but agreed to engage in a public process to conduct a review of elementary school boundaries, which would likely postpone any decisions until December.
"I would like to hear from more of the community. It doesn't feel like we've heard enough yet," said board member Heather Bennett.
The district's policy, which outlines a process, includes conducting informational open houses to discuss options for boundary changes.
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 three-fold that many students.
But several community members urged the board to consider its unique characteristics. The school serves children who live at the YWCA's crisis shelter and its transitional housing program.
Devon Musson Rose, the YWCA's chief domestic violence services officer, said the nonprofit agency has forged a trusted relationship with the school. Of the 139 children it is serving, 86 are school age.
The staff at Bennion understand the instability of the population that the YWCA serves, she said. "They understand protective orders and make sure our children are not exposed to risk.
Bennion's current enrollment is 213 students — 65 percent who are minorities, 24 percent who are homeless, 37 percent who are English learners, and 98 percent who receive free or reduced-price school lunch.
Others raised concerns about the transparency of the building utilization committee's work and its recommendations, which it arrived at after intensive study, said Salt Lake City School District Superintendent Lexi Cunningham. The committee included teachers, administrators, parents and classified employees representing all parts of the school district, she said.
"I had no clue Bennion was looking at closing until maybe two weeks ago," said Lauren Bergen, who teaches at the school.
School Community Council Chairwoman Carrie Chalverus said the committee had such a benign-sounding name. "In no way did I interpret that as possible closure of my school," she said.
She urged the school board to dig deeper and look at actual usage of Bennion's facilities, its demographics and equity.
Several people who addressed the board asked them to consider academic research on the toll of school closure, particularly among students who are already vulnerable because of instability in their lives.
"We have a number of our students from Bennion who do live at the Y, as we heard tonight. I'm just wondering, the numbers are the people behind them, if that cost outweighs the risk that we may be venturing down when it comes to our vulnerable students at Bennion," said board member Nate Salazar.
The committee recommendations included reviewing boundary options to accommodate the closing of an elementary, with the committee recommending Bennion, said Cunningham.1 comment on this story
It also recommended that the school board review the placement of sixth graders at Glendale Middle School.
Curtis Lee Dorsey-Maestas, who attended the school as a child but is now college educated and works as a supervisor for the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, said Bennion Elementary helped him become a successful adult. Bennion students need those role models, he said.
He started his address to the school board ticking off the names of his former teachers.
"Why do I remember those names? Because each of those names has been a hero to me," he said.