Meet Elizabeth Grant, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District
Grant, who was educated in Salt Lake City’s public schools, assumes the mantle as the district is dealing with declining enrollment and recovering from the pandemic
After a distinguished career in education that’s taken her from elementary school administration in Salt Lake City to high-level positions in the federal Department of Education, Elizabeth Grant has come full circle.
She has come home to lead the Salt Lake City School District, a district that helped shape her into a scholar and an educator, most recently as a professor in the George Washington University Graduate School of Education.
She is also an alum of the University of Utah, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in history. After that, she earned three graduate degrees, a master’s in teaching and curriculum from Harvard and a master’s degree in sociology and a doctorate in education policy analysis from Stanford University.
Grant said that she loved teaching at George Washington University, but she’s long thought about coming back to Salt Lake City.
“I grew up here and my family’s here and so many friends, having gone to school here, particularly at the University of Utah. So I’ve been gone for a long time but I’ve known I would come back to Salt Lake. I’m sure the pandemic had something to do with the timing of that. I really wanted to be closer to community, family and friends,” she said.
About that time, the Salt Lake City Board of Education was searching for a superintendent.
“This opportunity opened up, which changed the landscape for me and certainly increased my interest in coming here to Salt Lake,” she said.
Grant was hired in May and started earlier this month, succeeding Interim Superintendent Martin Bates, who stepped into the role after the school board and former Superintendent Timothy Gadson III parted ways some 14 months after he started as superintendent. Grant is the fourth superintendent in four years to lead the district.
Grant said she believes she is starting the position on firm footing.
“There is commitment across the board,” she said. “I’m in this. I’m here.”
School board members as well as community members “are cheering us on and ready to support our success,” she said.
On Thursday, Grant visited North Star Elementary School to observe its community education summer learning program, which started June 20 and runs four days a week until July 28. Each day’s activities include breakfast, enrichment activities and lunch.
Grant dropped by two classrooms, joining students in a game of hot potato in one room and working on a science project in another.
For the first few months of her superintendency, Grant said she is focused on listening and learning as well as conversing with people and “rebuilding that connection between the district office, our schools and our community and increasing people’s level of trust and comfort with the superintendent.”
Unquestionably, there are challenges ahead such as a shrinking enrollment that can result in school closures. As a child, Grant attended Rosslyn Heights Elementary School, which was shuttered two decades ago after a period of declining enrollment. Earlier in her career, she served as principal at Lowell Elementary, which was also closed by vote of the school board some 20 years ago.
Salt Lake City School District’s enrollment was stable through 2015-16 but has declined by some 3,200 students since, according to a January 2022 report by the Phoenix-based Applied Economics consulting firm.
According to the latest Utah State Board of Education headcount, Salt Lake City’s Oct. 1 enrollment had dropped to 19,449 students. The consultant’s report says multiple factors are contributing to the decline: gentrification, declining household sizes, an aging population and a decline in Utah’s birthrate.
Much has changed in Utah since Grant was a student at East High and the U., or the early days of her career as a teacher and a principal. But since returning to Utah, she has occasionally reconnected with people from her past.
During a recent event held to express appreciation to the district’s buildings and grounds employees, “one of the gentlemen who had worked with me when I was a school principal came up to say hi and remind me that we had worked together many years ago. It feels good to have people who know you and are connected to you and are eager to work together,” she said.
Grant said she views the Salt Lake City School District’s greatest asset as its people.
As she gets acquainted, or in some cases reacquainted, with district leaders, educators, employees and community members, it is “such a reminder ... that Salt Lake is a remarkable district with incredible strengths. Tapping into that again has been fun and hearing the stories of people working, what they’re doing in classrooms, that’s where I really want the attention on, the remarkable things going on in our classrooms. Highlighting that is pretty important to me and making sure it just gets better and better.”
At the same time, Grant approaches the work ahead with eyes wide open but with confidence because of the strength of her background. She knows what it’s like to be a classroom teacher, a principal, a college professor who has trained effective teachers and a high-level administrator in the Education Department.
Still, the very public, hands-on duties of a superintendent will require “a shift on my part,” she said.
“I have the advantage of having had a national perspective for a while and being able to delve deeply into the research and things which I think provides a background to what we’ll be doing in the next few months, which is listening and learning,” Grant said.
“I will certainly be relying on my senior team here in the district. They have a lot of these details in hand. They are strong leaders in their own right and are helping to bring me up to speed quickly on this.”
Grant’s front-burner issues are the school district’s declining enrollment, which is “something that urban districts across the country are facing. I think our students and our teachers coming out of the pandemic and their well-being is top of mind making sure that our schools are safe and inclusive places of belonging and deep learning for our students as well as places that are healthy workplaces, for our teachers and leaders,” she said.
She also has high expectations for the district’s schools and learners.
“I am committed and I believe completely that we can lead the state in measures of growth for our students. I think we can lead the state in measures of equity and opportunity and accomplishment among our students. That’s what we’re going to be about for the next few years. It’s a long-term project. This will take some years to develop into an even stronger district than we are now,” Grant said.