A Shadow Of A School: Polygamists Heed Call; Enrollments Drop

The Salt Lake Tribune / August 22, 2000
By Hilary Groutage Smith

HILDALE, Utah -- First-year Principal Max Tolman wondered if he would have a job after the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told followers in July to stop associating with apostates and outsiders, quit their jobs and pull their children from public schools.

Most of the children at Phelps Elementary in Hildale, as well as other area schools, come from polygamous families.

Overnight, enrollment at the K-8 school, tucked under the Vermillion Cliffs of the Arizona Strip, dropped from nearly 300 students to 60. The school lost seven of its 12 teachers.

But when the doors opened Monday, Tolman and his colleagues got a pleasant surprise -- 94 students showed up for classes.

"We don't care what religion they are. We're just glad they're here," Tolman said. In addition to Phelps Elementary, three schools in neighboring Colorado City, Ariz., are grappling with declines in student enrollment in the wake of the fundamentalist church's move to insulate itself from outsiders. In fact, the junior high school in Colorado City was closed this week because of a lack of students.

The Utah-Arizona border is indistinguishable in these towns, both founded by polygamists. But the growing schism between fundamentalist church members and other polygamists is not.

Five years ago, one group of polygamous families broke ranks with the fundamentalist church.

That dissension, coupled with the group's reportedly growing sense that the earth is facing its last days, may be the impetus for the edict issued this summer by the faith's leader, Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs referred all inquiries to Scott Berry, the group's Salt Lake City-based attorney. Berry did not return telephone calls from The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday.

Schools in these two towns have cooperated in the years since Phelps opened in 1986. Utah students attended Phelps up to eighth grade and then moved into upper grades at Cottonwood High School across town in Colorado City.

So far this year, no Utah students have registered for school in Colorado City, said Alvin Barlow, superintendent of the Colorado City Unified School District. If no one registers by the time school starts next Monday, it will be the first time in recent memory that no Utah students have attended.

Barlow, meantime, has also felt the pinch of declining enrollment. This time last year, there were more than 1,000 students enrolled in the district's elementary, junior high and high school. This year there are about 400.

Even though he is a lifelong educator, Barlow did not appear overly concerned about the drop in students. "I have never seen such interest and momentum in education and schooling as I have this year," he said, when asked about the fate of the students who have been withdrawn from the schools.

Private schools have been popping up all over town, including Morningside School run by his brother Dan Barlow, mayor of Colorado City.

"We find it important to still maintain professional rapport [with the private schools] as the public school district in the area," Alvin Barlow said.

Barlow's school district is one of more than 200 in Arizona and state education officials have given total control of the district to the Colorado City Board of Education.

When faithful FLDS members quit their jobs at the Colorado City schools, top administrators, Alvin Barlow included, stayed on.

Barlow has said only that maintaining a relationship with the community is important, but no one knows why the administrators in the Colorado City district seem exempt from Jeffs' edict.

Back at Phelps, some classrooms have been closed off and converted to storage rooms for unused desks. Students get the unexpected benefit of small classes and a computer-to-student ratio of about 1-to-1.

"School is going to be a little different this year," Tolman told his students in an opening assembly Monday morning. "It's a little smaller, but it will still be fun."

Kindergarten has the largest enrollment -- 29 students. The smallest grouping is in fourth and fifth grades, which have a combined total of 14 students.

The school has also combined first through third grades and sixth through eighth grades, making it possible to get by with five teachers.

And the children don't seem to mind. Neither did two polygamous mothers who spent the morning making sure the eight children they enrolled were settled in their classes.

Their children went to school in Colorado City last year, but the lure of much smaller classes in Hildale made them switch. Rex Wilkey, Washington County School District assistant superintendent, said with large polygamous families prone to maintaining more than one household, the change is probably perfectly legal.

"All we ask them for is a Utah address," he said. "And they gave us that."

The mothers said they are not members of the FLDS church and characterized themselves as Mormons who still believe in polygamy -- though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially disavowed the practice in 1890. They said the decision of where to school their kids is simple.

"This is not a religious decision. It's what's best for our children," said one mother, who asked for anonymity because she feared repercussions in the community.

And if Washington County officials have their way, they will stay right where they are. For a time this summer, Tolman and Wilkey feared the school would be shut down and students would have to be bused 15 miles to Hurricane. But Hurricane Elementary is full, they said.

"We want to stay open," Tolman said. "We hope people will come back to us."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.