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Sugar House Journal

Salt Lake City School District faces record low enrollment

Dec 16, 2021 11h07 ● By Lizzie Walie

After six years of consistent decline in enrollment, Salt Lake City School District reaches new lows. (Courtesy of Salt Lake City School District)

By Lizzie Walje | [email protected]

Following a six-year decline in enrollment, Salt Lake City School District is facing new lows in registration turnout. It’s a problem that first-year superintendent Timothy Gadson is extremely concerned about. 

“As of right now, concerns regarding student enrollment have become a prominent issue with our board,” he said. “We are taking the matter very seriously.” 

Gadson did make a point to emphasize that enrollment has been on the decline for the better part of the decade. The sentiment was also shared by Salt Lake City School District Spokesperson Yandary Chatwin. When Gadson and Chatwin were asked to account for this latest drop, they both cited assorted reasons, however, they both provided slightly different accounts for what they believe to be the crux of the issue.

In Chatwin’s perspective low enrollment is partially a result of “the housing crisis we are facing in Salt Lake. As home prices have gradually increased over the past several years, many families are looking to the suburbs instead.” 

On the contrary, Gadson’s reasons were a bit vaguer. “During the summer [of 2021] before my first official year as superintendent, I personally wrote a series of letters to thousands of families who had left the district [in the past six years]. There were slight variances in what was said as far as their reasoning but ultimately a lot of families just didn’t trust us anymore following the response taken last year during the pandemic.” 

Gadson wouldn’t necessarily elaborate on what those specific lapses in trust entailed, but he did say, “This is an area the board and I are working on consistently to improve. We hope to win back these families and show them that we are working to rebuild trust. I have an open-door policy and will always work with students and parents personally to find solutions.”

Chatwin echoed Gadson’s sentiments. “We, as a district are in the midst of discovering how to proceed. Sometimes there are just certain technological challenges, like gaps in access to internet access that result in families being unable to register.” 

But it’s not just the Salt Lake City School District that’s having to make adjustments. On the national stage, school boards and their meetings have been garnering increased attention and scrutiny as viral clips have surfaced with impassioned speeches from parents discussing everything from concerns regarding the implementation of critical race theory curriculum to mask mandates. In a recent October 2021 news story, National Public Radio dubbed school board meetings as “the new frontline in culture wars.”

According to Salt Lake City School District parents, these cultural issues are hitting close to home. On Oct. 6, Gadson and his administration began a district-wide listening and learning tour that started at Clayton Middle School. Incidentally, during the question and answer segment, a concerned parent cited an October 2021 Salt Lake District board meeting as a particular point of concern. The meeting came to a climax when board members faced off about critical race theory curriculum and identity politics. These issues are a hot-button source of debate across the country and could be contributing to that “lack of trust” Gadson cited.

Board member and President Melissa Ford was quick to acknowledge the budding tension but wants to put an emphasis on unifying parents on different sides of the ideological spectrum. 

“These are divisive times, and finding common ground is something we as a board are committed to. We’ve had our fair share of setbacks this year, some of which have directly impacted our families and students. However, what I’ve found is that when we remember the kids, when we focus on the kids, that’s when the outside noise goes away.” 

When asked directly about the issues regarding the safety of marginalized students, particularly those who identify as LGBTQ+ and Black, Indigenous and People of Color, Ford doubled down on her desire for unity.

“Our concern is ensuring all students feel safe and welcomed in our district, that all students feel they can express who they are comfortably and without ridicule. We welcome dissenting opinions amongst our school members because, at the end of the day, we are all different people and have different opinions. As a board, we want to focus on what we do have in common, and where we can build those bridges.”

These varying accounts from power players in the district seem to reveal a sobering truth. There is no one singular problem causing the decline in enrollment. After all, enrollment numbers have been down in the district for the better part of a decade. With a new superintendent at the helm, the next couple of years will be telling, especially considering Gadson feels incentivized to bring back the families of lost students.

“[The parents], most of them…they still pay taxes [in the district]. So even if their children are now attending different schools in different districts, they’re still directly financing our schools. It is, of course, a goal of ours to have that money go towards their own children’s education. And one of the only ways to do that is to find out first why they left the district and then discover how we can bring them back.”

Trying to win back the affections of lost parents is a sizable undertaking to pursue during a normal school year, let alone a year where Covid-19 exists and remains intrinsically linked to daily life. While it’s evident the district wants to pull forces, in order to truly assess the waning enrollment, they’ll likely need to go back in time and start examining what events led to a consistent six-year decline, ending in an alarming record low registration turnout. Whatever the case may be, the district has a lot to address and board president Ford knows this.

“Right now, we’ve been operating with a scarcity mindset because we’ve been stretched thin with resources for lots of reasons,” Ford said. “The board recognizes this, and we’re here to do what we can for every student. No matter what, we want what’s best for the kids.”