Utah’s educational history predates its founding as a state, tracing back to the mid-nineteenth century. The arrival of Mormon pioneers in 1847, led by Brigham Young, marks a pivotal point in Utah’s narrative. Seeking refuge from religious persecution, they settled in the Salt Lake Valley and founded Salt Lake City.
This event marked the beginning of Mormon colonization and the establishment of a distinct society centered around the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Mormon pioneers recognized the importance of education and established schools within their communities to provide basic education for their children. Thus, began the rise of Mormon schools and “common schools” in the state.
Public education came about in the last decade of the 19th century and only grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century. This post explores the nine oldest schools in Utah that are still operating. We’ll delve into their rich history and traditions, explore changes over time, highlight notable alumni, and mention the school’s current education offerings.
University Of Utah, 1850
201 Presidents’ Cir, Salt Lake City, UT 84112
The University of Utah is a top-rated public research institute in Salt Lake City. It’s the flagship campus of the Utah System of Higher Education, comprising the state’s 16 public institutions of higher learning. The school’s history traces back to the mid-19th century with the settlement of the Mormons in present-day Utah.
In 1847, Brigham Young organized a Board of Regents to establish a university. The institution, dubbed University of Deseret, opened on February 28th, 1850. It was commissioned by the General Assembly of the provisional State of Deseret, with Orson Spencer as the first chancellor.
Early classes were held in private homes, with the university partially shutting down in 1853 due to financial problems and low enrollments. Years of intermittent schooling at the Salt Lake City Council House followed, with the university re-established fully in 1867.
The school shifted to the Union Academy building in 1876 and later to Union Square in 1884. It was then renamed the University of Utah in 1892. The chancellor then, John R. Park, began arranging the acquisition of the U.S. Army’s Fort Douglas land, where the school shifted permanently in 1900.
A dispute among the leadership in 1915 led to a third of the faculty members resigning, citing the overwhelming influence of the LDS church in the school’s operations. While enrollment dipped during World War Ⅰ, the Great Depression, and World War Ⅱ, the numbers bounced back in the 50s and 60s, reaching 12,000 by 1964.
The school currently serves over 34,464 undergrad and postgrad students. It offers over 200 majors across its seventeen colleges and schools. Notable alumni and faculty of ‘The U’ include Mario Capecchi, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physiology, John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Systems Inc., and Stephen Covey, a distinguished author.
Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School, 1867
720 Guardsman Way, Salt Lake City, UT 84108
Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School, colloquially identified as Rowland Hall, is a private, independent, pre-K through twelfth-grade school in Salt Lake City. It traces its history back to 1867, making it the oldest school in continuous operation in Utah. The school serves roughly 1,031 students across four divisions.
Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s School traces its roots to the establishment of St. Mark’s Grammar School in 1867. Daniel Sylvester Tuttle, a Bishop of the Episcopal Church, founded St. Marks. The church, in 1880, also established Rowland Hall, a sister school to St. Mark’s. Rowland Hall was an all-girls boarding school that sought to serve the miners and ranchers in the Intermountain West.
St. Mark’s Grammar School was shut down in 1890 to support the newly established public schools in Utah territory. However, Rowland Hall continued to run. The Episcopal Church was unable to run the school during the Great Depression. Graduates and parents took over the financial responsibilities, converting Rowland Hall into an independent school.
St. Marks reopened in 1956 as an independent day school for boys next to Rowland Hall on the same city block. The two schools merged to become Rowland Hall-St Mark’s School in 1964.
Rowland Hall serves students on two campuses in Salt Lake City. The Beginner and Lower schools are on McCarthey Campus on Guardsman Way, while Middle and Upper Schools are a mile away on the Lincoln Street Campus.
Brigham Young University,1875
Provo, UT 84602
Brigham Young University(BYU) is a private research university affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). The church, under the leadership of Bringham Young, was founded in 1875. The school serves over 34,802 students in the Provo Campus, with additional enrollment in other satellite universities.
The school’s history traces back to 1862, when Warren Dusenberry founded a Provo School. The school faced financial difficulties, prompting the closure. However, it reopened as the Timpanogos branch of the University of Deseret.
When financial difficulties struck again in 1875, Bringham Young deeded the property to trustees for the establishment of the Brigham Young Academy. As such, the university identifies October 16th, 1875, as its founding date.
Classes began in 1876, with Dusenberry as the interim principal. Initially, the school was privately sponsored by individuals and wasn’t fully absorbed by the church until 1896. Brigham Young Academy was effectively dissolved in 1903 and replaced with Brigham Young High School and Brigham Young University.
BYU grew exponentially in the twentieth century, receiving numerous attestations from all major accrediting organizations. The school is certified as a research university with “high research activity” by the Carnegie Foundation. In 2019, Times Higher Education and The Wall Street Journal ranked the university first on the “Worth the Cost” college ranking.
Notable alumni include Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, and Mitt Romney, U.S. Senator and former Governor of Massachusetts / 2012 Republican Presidential nominee.
Westminster College, 1875
1840 South 1300 East, Salt Lake City, UT 84105
Westminster College is a private non-profit liberal arts college in Salt Lake City. The school comprises four colleges that serve roughly 1,535 students on a 27-acre campus. The institution was founded as a preparatory school in 1875, as Salt Lake Collegiate Institute.
The school offered its first collegiate education in 1896, effectively changing its name to Sheldon Jackson College. It was named after its primary benefactor, Presbyterian minister Sheldon Jackson. The college operated from the Collegiate Institute campus in downtown Salt Lake City under the First Presbyterian Church.
Sheldon Jackson College changed its name to Westminster College in 1902 to reflect more Protestant views. It became the first school in the Intermountain area to earn a two-year junior college accreditation. In 1935, Westminster College modified its curriculum to become a four-year junior college.
The school shut its high school section in 1945. The college expanded its academic offerings, becoming a four-year liberal arts university offering art and science baccalaureate degrees. The school recently announced that it will be identified as Westminster University from fall 2023 onwards to reflect its comprehensive academic offerings.
Westminster College is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Notable figures that attended the school include Alex Deibold, a 2014 Olympic bronze medalist in snowboard cross, Geoff Stradling, a renowned Hollywood composer, and David Litvack, Utah State House Representative for the 26th district.
Westminster College in the News
On May 11, 2023, Westminster College announced that they had selected Sodexo to become their new food service provider. The partnership will last through 2033. The menus will be made-from-scratch, and contactless payment will be offered to students. The food service provider has partnered with a few Salt Lake City local businesses to offer local options for students. In a statement, Westminster College said that Sodexo showed a great understanding of the college's needs and culture.
On March 9, 2023, KSL reported that a former goalkeeper for Westminster College's women's soccer team was suing the school for reported sexual harassment. According to the accusation, the individual was sexually harassed as part of a hazing incident. The student claimed that she was made to sit at the front of the bus during her early days on the team and answer “sexually inappropriate and personally invasive questions”, with her answers projected through the whole bus.
Wasatch Academy, 1875
120 South 100 West, Mt. Pleasant, Utah 84647
Wasatch Academy is an independent private liberal arts co-ed boarding school in Mount Pleasant, UT. The school offers a college preparatory education to roughly 192 eighth through twelfth-grade students. The student body is 64% male and 36% female.
Wasatch Academy was founded in 1875 by a Presbyterian Minister, Duncan McMillan. The Reverend had come to the Sanpete Valley to recover his health and do missionary work among the Latter-day Saints Church members.
The Presbyterian Church’s Board of Home Missions took over the school’s administration five years later, with the first graduating class of two in 1887. The school constructed a new schoolhouse, the Hungerford Hall, in 1888.
The school opened its boarding facilities for the first time in 1896, with George H. Marshall as the principal. The school experienced rapid expansion at the turn of the century, erecting numerous buildings. Finks Memorial Hall (1913), Charles F. Darlington, Jr. dormitory (1916), and Johns Gymnasium (1921) are some prime examples.
In 1930, Wasatch Academy shut its kindergarten through sixth-grade section. The school merged with the Logan Academy Academy in 1933, further expanding its reach. Wasatch later shut its middle school operations in 1958, effectively becoming a college preparatory high school.
The Presbyterian Board of Home Missions discontinued its sponsorship of the school, establishing Wasatch as an independent private school. The school currently has five dual-diploma campuses in China, in joint-academic partnership programs with Chinese high schools. Wasatch also has exchange partnerships with 13 other schools in India, Ecuador, Peru, Japan, and Chile.
St. Joseph Catholic Schools, 1877
1790 Lake Street, Ogden, UT 84401
St. Joseph Catholic Schools are a group of private parasol Catholic schools in Ogden, UT, that provide an award-winning Catholic curriculum to kids in preschool through twelfth grade. The school is divided into two distinct units, one handling the elementary section from pre-K through eighth grade and the other the high school section.
St. Joseph Catholic Schools trace their history back to 1877, when Father Lawrence Scanlan, the first Bishop of Salt Lake, established a school in a small wooden structure. At the invitation of Father Scanlan, the Sisters of the Holy Cross founded a boarding and day school known as Sacred Heart Academy; the school was on 26th and Washington.
Overcrowding at the Academy led to the Sisters purchasing a property on 25th Street and building a new campus for Sacred Hearts in 1890. The old academy on 26th and Washington operated as St. Joseph’s School for Boys.
St. Joseph’s School For Boys changed its name to St. Joseph’s Grade School after the parish built a substantial, fireproof building on 28th and Lincoln. The Sacred Heart Academy shut its operations in 1938.
In 1843, St. Joseph Grade School opened a junior high department but was forced to shut down the tenth grade in 1950 due to overcrowding. Through the support from the local parish and Catholic leaders, the school acquired Quincy School from the Ogden Board of Education and built its current campus.
The school reopened in 1954 under the administration of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and the Jesuit Fathers. The school has had numerous renovations and additions to the school buildings over the years.
St. Joseph Catholic Schools serve nine missions and parishes across Ogden. The elementary school is the only Catholic elementary institution in the area. In 2014, The Washington Post ranked the school among “America’s most challenging schools” due to its rigorous curriculum.
West High School, 1890
241 N 300 W, Salt Lake City, UT 84103
West High School is a highly-rated public school under the Salt Lake City School District. It is one of the largest schools in the state, serving roughly 2,658 students in ninth through twelfth grade. West High also boasts of being the oldest public high school in the state, tracing its founding to 1890.
The current school campus was rebuilt in 1922 on the original site, featuring a stunning facade. The school’s buildings have deteriorated over the years, with the district debating on tearing down the iconic building, building a new school while preserving the facade, keeping the entire building, and conducting extensive renovations to bring it up to code.
Most residents and former alums wish to see the school’s original structure preserved, terming it a significant symbol of Salt Lake City’s history. West High School offers numerous unique academic programs, including JROTC, International Baccalaureate, and dual-immersion classes.
West High also has a robust athletic program, winning state championships in multiple years over its 133-year history. The school has won the football state championship twenty-one times, the boys’ track championship nine times, and four for boys’ tennis. West High also maintains an athletics hall of fame wall to honor its outstanding athletes.
Mary W. Jackson Elementary School, 1892
750 W 200 N, Salt Lake City, UT 84116
Mary W. Jackson Elementary is a public elementary school in the Salt Lake City District. The school boasts being the oldest public elementary school in Utah, founded in 1892.
During its original construction, William J. Newman, a Salt Lake Education Board Member, was given the task of naming the school after any president of the U.S. Newman named the school after Andrew Jackson, the seventh president.
The school name created an uproar in 2017, with most residents uncomfortable with the association of Andrew Jackson with slavery and campaigns against Native Americans. The Salt Lake City Board of Education voted unanimously to rename the school to Mary W. Jackson Elementary, after the first black female NASA engineer.
The school has a minority enrollment of 81%, with some residents viewing the name change as a unifying event that reflects diversity. The school’s test scores fall below the state average, with 25% of students proficient in English and 32% proficient in math.
Southern Utah University, 1898
351 W University Blvd, Cedar City, UT 84720
SUU’s roots trace back to 1897. The newly organized Utah Legislature passed a resolution for the hurried establishment of a teacher training school to serve the region’s pioneering settlements. Cedar City residents worked through the spring of 1897 to complete the Ward Hall on Main Street, with the Branch Normal School opening in September.
Two months later, state officials declared that Ward Hall didn’t comply with the state code. The officials also insisted that the school be built on land deeded solely to the state by September of the following year or risk permanent closure.
Cedar City residents took it upon themselves to build the new school, trudging through shoulder-high snows to get to sawmills and source lumber for the new building. Construction continued through to July, with the school’s Old Main building nearly complete by September. The school’s first graduates were four teachers, colloquially identified as the Founding Four.
The school changed its name in 1913 to Branch Agricultural College (BAC). BAC was a branch school of the Utah State Agriculture College, the current Utah State University. The school expanded to a four-year college in the late 1940s.
The school switched names twice, first to College of Southern Utah in 1951 and later to Southern Utah State College in 1969. The Normal School attained university status in 1991, changing its name to Southern Utah University.
Notable alumni include Michael O. Leavitt, the 14th Governor of Utah; Harry Reid, a former U.S. Senate Majority Leader; and Lonnie Mayne, a professional wrestler in the 1960s.
Southern Utah University in the News
On May 8, 2023, Southern Utah University's news site released an article looking back on the 22-23 school year. That year was the university's 125th, marking a huge milestone for them. Some of the highlights that the article mentioned included SUU's first Arts Festival, a new Geospatial Sciences degree, the launch of its first doctoral program, and the inauguration of their first president.
On June 12, 2023, KSL reported that an SUU freshman had won the game show Wheel of Fortune. Wheel of Fortune involves contestants spinning a large wheel to determine what prize they are eligible for, and then attempting to guess a word puzzle. Kira Paskett said that she wasn't too familiar with the show prior to applying to be a contestant, but that she wanted to do something that would push her out of her comfort zone. She won $14,800 in total.
On April 27, 2023, SUU opened its newest academic building, Bristlecone Hall. The building adds 17 classrooms, seven teaching and art studios, 80 offices and workspaces, and seven labs to the school. The building will host aspects of several different departments, including filmmaking, mathematics, history, and sociology, among others.
Finding The Right School For Your Child
Utah’s educational scene is highly influenced by the Mormon settlements in the late 1840s, led by Brigham Young. The Mormon Schools, alongside other religious schools, provided the foundation for education in the provisional State of Deseret. The public schools came later in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Most schools in this list are top-performing and would make an excellent selection for your family. Understanding their rich history can help you pick a school with the right traditions and values to instill in your child.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com.