West Valley City • The sidewalks of the new $70 million Granger High School were filled with familiar sights and sounds on the first day of school Wednesday: new backpacks and outfits, kids comparing schedules, shrieks of recognition and hugs.
And then there was the unfamiliar educators greeting students at 7:30 a.m. with a red-carpet, Oscar ceremony-like welcome.
Most of Utah's 615,600 students, about 15,600 more than last year, and 32,000 educators return to schools this week along the Wasatch Front. In the Granite School District, one of the state's largest (with nearly 68,000 students), the new school year began Wednesday with heat, minor mishaps and more students than expected.
The new Neil Armstrong Academy, which will emphasize so-called STEM programs (science, technology, engineering and math) also opened in West Valley City, and already has a waiting list of 800.
Granger High, the second new high school to open in the district this year, is already knee-deep in crowding. Educators expected about 2,500 students, but they welcomed roughly 3,000 on the first day of school, including the newly added ninth graders. The old Granger High held about 1,500 students.
The new building has generated plenty of buzz and has earned rave reviews from those who toured its expansive hallways, designed for safety and crowd-control, its state-of-the-art computer labs and the well-appointed 1,500 seat auditorium. Most people echoed senior Jose Ortiz's judgment: "I think it's awesome."
Inside the Granger High gymnasium, Mayor Mike Winder encouraged students to aim for college and ended his pep talk by putting on a Granger baseball hat, hip-hop style, and beginning to rap.
"I'm the rapping mayor and I'm here to say/ That I hope that you have a really great first day. It's a new Granger now, and the building is done/ And Lancers are pouring in, for learning and fun. [Principal Jerry] Haslam is ready, the teachers are, too, but making it a great year is really up to you."
The Granite School District, also one of the most diverse in the state, used a voter-approved $256 million bond to build the new Granger High and the new Olympus High in Holladay, which opened in April, among other projects.
The old Granger High building, constructed in 1955, will be demolished this fall after asbestos removal.
The new building is loaded with technology and slick touches, such as silver signs that mark the locations of the gym and auditorium. The school has hundreds of computers, scattered in several computer labs with lecture-style seating and state-of-the-art projectors mounted in the ceilings.
To encourage a historical perspective, an alumni room near the entrance holds trophies and a full-size medieval knight in armor, the school's mascot, The Lancer.
Rick Clawson, chairman of the math department, graduated from Granger in 1983, and has only taught there for the past 24 years.
"Everything is bigger," Clawson said. "There's a lot more technological options."
A few miles away, the main entrance to the Neil Armstrong Academy seemed like a stadium on the day of a big match: frenzied and jammed.
The new $17 million elementary school teaches the usual state curriculum with a STEM focus. Students will be equipped with iPads in the next couple of days.
District spokesman Ben Horsley said the school helps the district compete with charter schools, which are public schools with fewer restrictions on curriculum and other issues than traditional neighborhood schools.
Proponents of STEM programs say learning engineering reinforces math and science skills, promotes critical thinking and creativity, and teaches students to not be afraid of taking intellectual risks.
Armstrong Academy is about 90 percent complete, officials said. There were mounds of dirt outside the school on Wednesday and construction workers inside finishing rooms.
However, in Robin Farnsworth's third grade class, everything was in its place, including each student with their names labeled on a water bottle.
Similar to other elementary schools, the students will have PE and music classes, but unlike other schools, there are no sport fields. Instead, there is a greenhouse outside.
At many elementary schools students mingle as they hang coats in class. At Armstrong the halls are lined with lockers. Officials said separation helps prevent diseases from spreading.
The school holds 668 kindergarten through sixth-graders and 100 pre-kindergartners. Half the students come from inside neighborhood boundaries and the rest are drawn from other areas through open enrollment, for which students are accepted on a first-come, first-accepted basis.
Principal Tyler Howe, who writes a regular blog, said there have been few complaints about the continuing construction, primarily because parents have been informed about the delays through the school's Facebook page.
Among the school's unique features, classrooms have raised flooring so there's space for computer cables. Outside, 122 geothermal wells help circulate warm water for lower cooling and heating costs.
"We feel so lucky to get into this great school," parent Pat Nelson, who has a kindergartner attending. "This is state-of-the-art."
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Utah lowest when it comes to funding education
The per-pupil spending in Utah came in dead last nationally in 2010, the latest data available.
• Total per pupil spending in Utah, which ranked 51st: $6,452 (which includes these "direct" classroom costs: $4,154 for instruction, $393 for school administration, $262 staff support, $249 pupil support, and $81 for district administration).
• Total per pupil spending in nation: $10,652 (which includes $6,526 for instruction, $592 pupil support, $579 school administration, $510 staff support, $211 district administration).
Source: Utah Department of Education