FLDS: Polygamous sect members rediscover higher education

The Salt Lake Tribune/October 24, 2009

Colorado City, Ariz. - Outside a classroom at North Mohave Community College, students talk quietly as they wait for others to finish a chemistry test.

It's a typical campus scene except for this: The students are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Approximately 100 people, a majority of them women, in the polygamous sect have enrolled at the college, boosting student numbers by 28 percent.

"They have fit in so well, it's actually been a lot of fun to have them on campus," said Susan Hammon, campus dean. "They take their academics very seriously. ... They appear to be well prepared for the classes that they are taking."

Four FLDS members also are now teaching part-time at the college. Warren Barlow, a Colorado City paramedic who has taught EMT courses at Dixie State College, is now an adjunct instructor for the college's fire science program.

"Being able to have that resource here in town is for sure a real value for the community," he said.

The northern Arizona campus draws its 450 or so students from as far away as Cedar City and as close as Centennial Park, Fredonia and Kanab.

But it's been almost two decades since FLDS members have enrolled at the local campus, which they stopped supporting after leadership and property disputes fractured the community.

The sect operated its own unaccredited university for a short time; a limited number of FLDS members also pursued career training or college degrees at such institutions as Southern Utah University.

Its view of the local campus further soured when the college allowed Mohave County to lease property in 2004 for a law enforcement and social services center. Its parking lot often was used as a staging area for news media and law enforcement.

That had a "chilling effect," not only for the FLDS but for other students, Hammon said.

"It really distracted from our goal to have an open college for all segments of the population," said Hammon, who is not affiliated with the sect.

College President Mike Kearns, who attributed some of the campus' stalled enrollment to the presence of the multipurpose facility, announced in February he would not renew the lease in hopes of creating a neutral campus where FLDS members would feel welcome.

The move worked.

It also coincided with an educational push by the sect. Earlier this year, the community tested students to see how its private and home school programs measured up, said spokesman Willie Jessop.

"What we saw was the community was all over the board," he said. But, "A lot of them had great scores. We felt it was important to put them right into college."

For the most part, the students and their families pay their own college expenses, but the church will assist in cases of need, Jessop said. "For people who want to go to school, those opportunities are there."

And many apparently want to do just that.

Sisters Janice and Margaret, who like many FLDS did not want to be fully publicly identified, said they did not feel comfortable coming to the campus previously because of the law center. Instead, they traveled to St. George once a week last year to attend a certified nurse assistant program, which they completed in December.

Now, they are enrolled at the college because it is "more comfortable to be out here," said Janice, 19.

"It takes a great burden off us and our parents - financially, too, because you know how it is to travel, it still being so expensive and everything," said Janice.

Added Margaret, 21: "They've treated us pretty good so far."

The sisters are in their second semester. Each is taking 16 credits, a heavy load that required them to give up jobs in St. George and Hurricane. The sisters want to be nurses; Janice wants to care for patients, while Margaret wants to be in health care administration.

The FLDS students who have come to the campus have ranged in age from 16 to 20; like many students, some juggle school, work and family responsibilities.

As with any student, they first take either a General Educational Development course or a placement test -- which shows whether they are ready to move into college courses.

The college has expanded from one GED course to four classes to accommodate the FLDS students. So far, nearly every student who has taken the GED test, which covers high school level math, writing, reading, social studies and science, has passed it on the first try, said instructor Marilyn Cox.

"It's a recognition of their motivation and background and preparedness when they come that they are able to do it," Cox said.

Adds Julia Hammon, the college's night clerk: "I think a lot of them were quite thrilled when they did a lot better than expected."

Most of the FLDS students are interested in the two-year college's health field offerings, such as its registered and licensed practical nurse programs. The campus also offers technology, business and liberal arts degrees.

Among the future nurses: A young woman who asked to be identified as "Miss Barlow." Barlow had previously looked at nursing programs elsewhere when "the way opened up to do it here locally."

It's the mid-point of the semester and Barlow, 20, is feeling as frazzled as any college student. She says she has found her teachers "wonderful" and asked how she is doing, Barlow laughs and says: "Doing. I am getting A's in all my classes right now."

Already a certified EMT, she is taking four classes: biology, chemistry, English and psychology, a 12-credit load. Barlow plans to apply in March for the college's registered nurse program -- following in the footsteps of her mother, who got her degree through programs at Dixie College and Southern Utah University.

"I really love caring for people," Barlow said. "It's not that I like to see them in pain, but I love to do the things that will make them feel better."

Next spring, the college will team with the Colorado City Fire Department to offer a fire academy, renewing an old partnership.

That will allow those interested in becoming fire fighters or paramedics to get college credit, said Jake Barlow, chief of the Colorado City Fire District, which also serves Hildale, Utah. And the college will be able to draw on the fire department's equipment and resources, too.

"The current administration has done an excellent job trying to bring the community back to the college," he said. "We hope to make it work."

The FLDS and education

In 2000, FLDS parents pulled their children from public schools in Utah and Arizona and began privately educating them, either at home or in schools organized by families and neighborhoods. FLDS educators in the public schools moved to the community's school system.

Not much is known about the FLDS curriculum, in part because there is little oversight of home schools in either state. Questions about the adequacy of the sect's educational practices abound.

The FLDS have private high schools, but many of those who have left the community report they did not attend school beyond 10th grade -- some said they quit after elementary or junior high school.

The compulsory education law in Utah requires school attendance for children ages 6 to 18; in Arizona, children must attend until age 16 or completion of 10th grade.

Educational practices vary among families, according to the sect, and some encourage career training and higher education.

The sect is working to improve its educational system, according to spokesman Willie Jessop. It plans to offer training for parents who home school and specialized classes for children who struggle in some subjects or want extra college preparation.

"We're trying to find a community-wide balance, where no one is left behind in a good school system, even if that is a private home school," Jessop said.

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