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School leaders in Rose Park work to get bridge to help community

Posted at 1:14 PM, Feb 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-18 13:39:21-05

SALT LAKE CITY — One elementary school will soon be connected to its community in a way it never was before.

Last week, a bridge was lowered into place over the Jordan River near Backman Elementary in the Rose Park neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

The bridge is the culmination of years of work done by the school’s principal Heather Newell and her staff.

“I burst into tears and couldn't believe this actually, finally happened,” Newell said.

Newell became principal of the school in 2014. She was hired to help the school grow and improve.

“I knew when I came here as a turnaround principal in 2014, it would take more than academics to change a community,” she said. “I see my work as more than just test scores.”

One problem school administration noticed was lagging attendance.

“In our first couple years – one of the responsibilities we had here is to make sure our children come to school. If they’re not in school, they’re not learning,” said Karina Lugo-Villalba, the school’s family collaboration specialist.

Heather and Karina realized the Jordan River was creating a barrier to the campus.

The river lies between the school and the neighborhood where many students live.

To get to school, those students have to use a narrow sidewalk along busy 600 North and 700 North to get to school.

Heather got an idea that a bridge over the river would help students get to school safely and promote better attendance.

“I wouldn't want my kids walking along a street that didn't have a barrier between the sidewalk and street,” she said.

She took her dream of a bridge to community leaders and organizations including the Jordan River Commission.

“The kind of work we do as a commission is to bring together partners to help do more than any of them can do on their own,” said Soren Simonsen, the executive director of the Jordan River Commission.

The bridge idea was met with open arms.

“Your walk to school, your bike ride prepares you for the best educational outcomes and for learning,” said Aimee Horman, the education and outreach manager of the Jordan River Commission. “Imagine not having the stress of the busy road.”

The process to get the bridge began in 2014. The journey to the bridge’s placement eight years later was full of public meetings, searching for funding, dealing with increased costs and plenty of obstacles.

“The project was wrought with all kinds of twists and turns and barriers,” Heather said with a laugh.

Heather and Karina persevered and refused to give up.

For Karina, who has lived most of her life in Rose Park, getting this bridge and improving the community for its youngest residents is a personal quest.

“I refer to us as the roses in the park. That's what we want children to believe,” Karina said. “They are growing and blooming and cared about.”

More work is required on the bridge before it can open to pedestrians and Heather hopes it will be completed soon.

The project also includes the creation of an outdoor classroom near the river that the school can use for lessons on nature and the environment. The school hopes everything is finished by the start of the Fall 2022 term.

Karina gets emotional when seeing the bridge and thinking about what it means to the community.

“Heather and I have worked incredibly hard knowing this is something this neighborhood deserves,” she said through tears.