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SALT LAKE CITY — Built for 2,700 students, Granger High School is serving more than 3,400 learners this fall, according to the latest state enrollment figures.
Not only is it the largest high school in Utah, the Granite School District high school in West Valley City is among the most diverse, serving a population where ethnic minorities make up 80% of the student body.
Yes, it gets a little crowded during passing periods and in common areas, but Principal David Dunn said: "It is great to have kids back in the building. Last year was so different, but it kind of reinforced that schools are a place where kids want to be. I think it's reflected in having that many kids coming back to school at this point so we love it."
At a head count of 3,406, Granger High School's Oct. 1 enrollment puts it at the top of the state in terms of student body population. The next is Copper Hills High School in West Jordan, with a head count of 2,866, according to new enrollment figures released by the Utah State Board of Education.
By contrast, Lake Powell High School in Kane County School District has a head count of four students.
Statewide, Utah's public school enrollment this fall grew by about 1.3% compared to the Oct. 1, 2020, head count, bringing the total number of students to 675,247. That's an increase of 8,638 students over last year, according to new state data.
Last fall, for the first time since 2000, public school enrollment declined amid the pandemic to 665,306 students. Kindergarten enrollment alone dropped statewide by nearly 4% last year. Kindergarten is optional in Utah but most children are enrolled.
This was part of a national trend due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when schools returned to in-person learning, many parents opted to keep them home, according to the latest American Family Survey. The national survey of 3,000 adults nationwide indicates more than half of respondents whose children did not attend school in person chose not to return to the classroom when they had the option. The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Most Utah schools returned to in-person learning last fall, but some parents opted to keep kids home and enroll them in online instruction offered by their school district or in public charter schools that specialize in virtual learning.
According to this year's Oct. 1 count, kindergarten enrollment rebounded to levels higher than in 2019.
Student transfers from public school to homeschooling grew from 914 in the fall of 2019 to 3,375 in 2020. This fall, that number fell to 1,227 this year, the state board reported.
Charter school enrollment fell slightly, dropping 1.9% to 77,786 students compared to 79,255 last year.
Meanwhile, enrollment in online-only public schools remained virtually unchanged: 26,605 students in 2020 and 26,711 this year.
Alpine School District remains Utah's largest school district with 83,999 learners. It is followed by Davis School District with 72,540 students and Granite with 60,371. Rounding off the top five are Jordan School District at 57,840 and Washington School District at 36,453.
Enrollment in Salt Lake City School District fell for the third consecutive year to 19,833.
Student growth and declines in enrollment pose challenges for different reasons. In growing areas of the state, school districts' building needs are stressed to keep pace with growing enrollments.
Since enrollment drives state funding formulas, fewer students means less state support.
This fall, Granger High's cup runneth over with a school head count that's been on the upswing since fall 2018. The school, which was rebuilt and opened in 2013, now requires 10 relocatable classrooms to accommodate its student body.
There are many, many Lancers at Granger High School, but Dunn said he enjoys the school's vibrancy.
"It's the diversity makes our school a pretty rich place. ... When you in walk in here, the kids feel comfortable," he said.
It helps that they have a principal that spent his childhood outside the United States and is multilingual. Born in Tanzania to a father who was a professional big hunter and took people on safaris, Dunn grew up on a cattle ranch in Chihuahua, Mexico. He speaks English and Spanish fluently — and also Swahili.
About 60% of the school's population is Hispanic, "so I probably spend the equivalent of two hours a day throughout the day speaking Spanish to the students," whose families are from Mexico and South American countries, he said.
"So it's great when there's that connection, when they feel that they have an adult or the principal speak Spanish, and I think there's some the trust that builds up pretty quickly," Dunn said.
Speaking Spanish also helps build bridges with parents.
"I think eliminating a language barrier is a big step, but I think what's even better is when you not only eliminate the language, but you also understand the culture. You can say, 'You know, we can speak Spanish, but I also know that if you're coming from Mexico, this is probably what your experience was in Mexico.'"
Then "those walls go down and there's a lot of trust in the conversation. I think parents feel very appreciative, very appreciative," he said.
Statewide, white students make up 72% of Utah's public school population. Hispanic or Latino students comprise 19% of Utah students, with Pacific Islanders and Asian student groups comprising 2% each. Black and American Indian students each make up 1% of the statewide enrollment, and students identifying as two more or races comprise 3% of the total.
According to state data, 27% of Utah public school students are economically disadvantaged. Eight percent are English language learners and 12% are students with disabilities.
One percent of Utah students, or 9,014, are homeless, according to the count.