Middle school students learning English as a second language may not have to keep crossing town for an education.

The Salt Lake City Board of Education is considering dissolving the ESL magnet program at Hillside Intermediate School to keep students in their own neighborhoods. A proposed time line would pace the move, which could require boundary changes, over two years.

The idea recommended by the district is based on research and national trends. But it also follows a rape of an ESL student who was waiting for the bus.

Hillside is a “magnet” school for students learning English. It enrolls 325 ESL students, district numbers show.

The district’s other four middle schools also enroll ESL students, from 76 students at Clayton to 342 at Glendale, the district reports. Those schools have a few ESL teachers, coordinators or counselors or use special reading programs to meet student needs, Dale Rees, ESL teacher on special assignment at the district office, said Tuesday at a school board study session.

The magnet program was set up a decade ago with help of a grant under Title VII of the Bilingual Education Act, Superintendent Darline Robles said.

But now, ESL students make up half Hillside’s enrollment, raising an important issue for state educational equity coordinator Richard Gomez.

“If you get too many kids from a given neighborhood being bused to a school in significant numbers, there is an issue of are we segregating the Alternative Language Services programs. Kids learn best in an integrated school setting with other kids from their own neighborhood,” Gomez said Wednesday. He said the district should study the issue to “determine where is the best setting to most equitably provide services to those limited-English-proficiency students.”

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights supports ESL kids attending their neighborhood schools, a district report states. Students educated in their own communities gain greater commitment to their school, which can increase achievement and help prevent drop-outs. Bus schedules also may keep students from access to extracurricular activities, socialization and parent involvement at school.

“The distance between school and home is the thing that worries me most,” Hillside principal Jane Larson told the board. Recently, one girl attempted to use a UTA bus to go home and ended up lost in the transfer downtown. “Remember, there’s a language barrier. . . . I’m afraid I’m going to lose one.”

Safety also has been a concern for parents.

Glendale immigrants last January asked the district to help them ensure their children safe passage to school following the rapes of two girls. One victim was walking to Glendale Middle School in December; the other was a Hillside student who had been dropped off at the bus stop.

Dismantling the magnet program would have a ripple effect. And board member Ila Rose Fife wonders if the schools have adequate resources and space.

If the magnet program is dissolved, Hillside would lose 283 ESL students. Bryant would pick up 52; Clayton, 13; Glendale, 129; and Northwest, 89.

Glendale principal Larry Peterson said space would be tight and he would need resources from Hillside. But, he said, “We will make it work.”

Robles indicated such enrollment changes could bring boundary changes or require a new school. She suggested talking with principals in the coming weeks.

The board expressed interest moving forward.

“It’s a mind-expanding, socially broadening experience to have these children in their schools,” school board President Kathy Black said.

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com

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