Fundamentalist Mormons in B.C. send kids to public school for first time

Brandon Sun, Vancouver/October 27, 2005

Vancouver -- Some mormons who practise polygamy in southeastern B.C. have taken the breakthrough step of sending their children to a public school for the first time ever.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church, has been living in a commune in Bountiful for several decades.

While not all sect members live at Bountiful, their children have always either been home-schooled or attended Mormon Hills School on the Bountiful property.

But this year for the first time, about 10 fundamentalist students living in the area are enrolled in the elementary school in the tiny community of Yahk, about 30 kilometres east of Bountiful.

The breakthrough was hailed as historic and timely because it kept the elementary school from being shut down.

"We were quite astounded and quite happy to see them because that meant the numbers were going to be large enough that we assumed school would not be closed," Rebecca Blair, vice-president of the Creston Valley Teachers Association, said Thursday from her home in Creston.

Melanie Sommerfeldt, who lives in Yahk, called the development "monumental" because "they've never come into the public school system before."

Sommerfeldt, the head of the Yahk Parent Advisory Council, said the influx put the school numbers past a threshold that might otherwise have forced the school board to close the school and send everyone to Creston.

The enrolment increased the school population to 18 - enough to keep it open and well above the threshold number of 10.

"They don't look at closing schools until number falls under 10," said Sommerfeldt. "Now we have students and there's no financial reason to close our school."

Blair said the story began when she was contacted by the lone teacher at Yahk elementary last month who told her that "a bunch of Bountiful women had come and said they wanted to enrol their kids."

"They said they liked the curriculum."

Those women later attended a school board meeting where they again let their feelings be known.

They were "terribly brave to stand up in front of the public like that and say this is what they were choosing to do."

Even one of the fundamentalist teachers at the Mormon Hills School enrolled her son in kindergarten at Yahk elementary, said Blair.

"She said the reason her son is enrolled at kindergarten in Yahk was because as a teacher at the Mormon school she's too exhausted to work with him in the evenings."

Blair likened the development to an historic or cultural breakthrough for everyone in the area.

"When I was sitting in that meeting it made the back of my neck tingle," she said.

"It's the idea of accepting them for who they are and welcoming them into our group. That's what public education is all about."

The Mormons first established themselves in Utah in the 19th century and practised polygamy. When the main church later rejected polgyamy, the fundamentalists broke away and established sects in two small communities in Utah and Arizona.

Another sect has flourished in Bountiful, in the Columbia Mountains and close to the Idaho border, for several decades.

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