Elephant in the City, Vol 1: The Public vs. Private School Debate in Salt Lake City
Elephant in the City is a Niche Homes blog series exploring the funny, awkward, and serious questions about moving to and living in Salt Lake.
One of the first questions I typically get asked by families moving to Utah is, “What are the schools like?” And while it is a fairly innocuous question, the veiled tone is usually more akin to, “Tell me, doctor, how bad is it?”
For one reason or another, Utah (and Salt Lake City by default) has earned an undeserved reputation as a city with poor K-12 schools. Blame it on our state’s low per-capita student funding statistics, hard-to-discern online school ratings or rumors about social segregation along religious lines in public schools; but I find, more often than not, that there is a tremendous amount of education trepidation among parents considering a move to Utah.
In an attempt to dissuade rumours and present the best Salt Lake City has to offer in K-12 education, we interviewed a handful of people in our community about their children’s educational experience. We tried to assemble a diverse set of voices whose views and background represent an accurate cross section of our neighborhood. The individuals we spoke with have children that span the age gammit; they have children who have attended neighborhood public schools, nearby private institutions, or both; they are transplants and dyed-in-the-wool natives; they represent various religious and ethnic backgrounds.
What we discovered during the interview process was parents who, through kismet or trial and error, have found schools that suit the particular needs of their children and family. Their experiences, below in their own words, should encourage even the most wary of would-be Salt Lake transplants.
Scroll over to read more about our seven interviewees and their advice on choosing a school in Salt Lake City. While this is not a comprehensive overview of all the public and private school options, it does give a broad sense of the high-quality K-12 school options in Salt Lake City.
Previously lived in Canada, Salt Lake resident of 8 years
Indian Hills Elementary, McGillis School
If we had to go back to Indian Hills, we would. We enjoyed walking to school with neighbors and friends. There were great teachers and involved parents. That being said, it would be hard to give up the opportunities my children have at McGillis: a strong Jewish community, smaller class sizes, second language opportunities, and extracurricular acitivities including camping and community-service field trips. Their after care program was also a much better fit for our work schedule.
Previously lived in Houston, Salt Lake resident of one year
I attended private schools growing up and I’m a big proponent of public schools! I think you should go to the school you are zoned for: it builds community and you get to know your neighbors. Before we moved to Salt Lake my husband, Jim, thoroughly researched all the public schools in Salt Lake. We narrowed our home search down to homes in the Bonneville and Uintah Elementary boundaries. I love Bonneville so far—great teachers and amazing parent involvement. I help out in the classroom whenever I can; but really, there are so many involved parents here that I do much less than I did in our last school.
Rachel Weir, MD
Previously lived in Wisconsin, Salt Lake resident of 18 years
Bonneville Elementary, Cosgriff Elementary School
My advice would be to start with the school where other kids on the block are going. If the neighborhood school doesn’t work out, it’s not traumatizing to try something different. Kids are more flexible than we think. Salt Lake has great school-choice options: public charters (such as magnet gifted programs and arts schools) and private schools; it’s really hard to go wrong.
Mary Catherine Perry
Previously lived in the Bay Area, Salt Lake resident of 20 years
Bonneville Elementary, Clayton Middle School, East High School
I’m a huge believer in neighborhood schools and you will find the public schools in Salt Lake are better than you could have expected. Bonneville Elementary and Clayton Middle School have strong, well-supported PTAs and top-notch administrators and teachers. East High School, with its diverse student body, is rich in tradition with many opportunities for students to serve and lead. School choice can be a double edged sword; it’s hard to know if you are leaving one set of challenges to face another. If you’re on the fence, I recommend trying your neighborhood school first.
Previously lived in the Bay Area and Boston,
Salt Lake resident of 18 years
Bonneville Elementary, Carden Elementary,
East High School, Skyline High School
Our experience at Bonneville Elementary was very positive but I ended up moving our children to Carden seeking a more classical, non-denominational Christian education: a focus on literature, poetry, U.S. history, with a prayer and bible study component. My two oldest attended East High School after graduating from Carden and they both had positive experiences; attending an inner-city school provided them valuable real-world experiences. Our other son chose to attend Skyline; it seemed a better fit for his artistic and academic interests. My experience with school choice is one school is never better than another, rather different; and different children have different needs. My advice is to do what feels right for your family and child. We live in such an amazing neighborhood—you will make connections and find a community no matter where your kids go to school!
Born and raised in Salt Lake City
My mom served for many years on the Salt Lake City School District Board and taught in public school before having kids. I have great respect for the public education system in Salt Lake and would highly recommend our neighborhood schools to anyone moving here. That being said, we chose Carden for its smaller class sizes and the way they meet the individual needs of its students. We are lucky to have such great private school options and public school options in Salt Lake.
Debbie Graham. DDS
Previously lived in Phoenix, Salt Lake resident for 8 years
Bonneville Elementary, Wasatch Middle School,
Skyline High School, Judge Memorial
I have four children at four different schools, and I’ll be the first one to tell you that I never wanted this! But I’m a proponent of including children in their school-choice decisions and empowering them to set the course of their education. My oldest daughter is clear minded and on track to attend medical school; Judge Memorial has been the perfect fit for her with its small class sizes, rigorous curriculum and aggressive college admissions and scholarship placement program. My second son is at Skyline and while he’s been challenged by their IB program, he misses some of his neighborhood friends; he might choose to transfer back to East High School. I have another daughter at Wasatch Junior High. She chose the school for its strong academics and because it’s where most of her dance team friends go to school. My youngest attends Bonneville Elementary—and who wouldn’t love Bonneville! They have the best teachers and parents; it would be hard to justify spending money at another elementary school unless there was a strong affinity for a parochial education.
Early Light Academy, a tuition-free public charter in Daybreak serving K-9th grade
“Early Light academy was our first choice for schools for two major reasons. The first major reason was the proximity to our home. Secondly, we wanted a school where we had more parental involvement. We have since fallen in love with all the staff and teachers at ELA. We feel like it’s the kids home away from home and feel safe recommending this school to anyone researching their options.”
Golden Fields Elementary, Mountain Creek Middle School, Herriman High
“We chose to enroll our kids at Golden Fields Elementary, Mountain Creek Middle and Herriman High. We have been very impressed with the leadership at each school and the administration’s holistic approach to education. All three schools have shown an exceptional ability to adjust learning plans to each of our children’s needs and interests.”
Jason and Tami Hewlett
Early Light Academy (ELA) public charter, and Mountain Creek Middle School
“There are many options around our home to send our children to school. We chose ELA years ago due to the performing arts and history programs and especially the culture they have fostered as a charter school. We feel like we are part of a family there.
Our oldest child now goes to MCMS (public middle school) and we are thrilled with their care and attention to detail for the challenge that is middle school. Very grateful for so many wonderful choices so close to our home.”
Still have more questions about Salt Lake City schools? Please contact us! We would be happy to connect you with a parent who could best answer your questions. Niche Homes is a boutique real estate agency specializing in Salt Lake neighborhoods and moving to Salt Lake.