Polygamous families empty public schools

The Arizona Republic/August 29, 2000
By Mark Shaffer

COLORADO CITY - He'd had a month to prepare since polygamous religious leaders declared public schools the bane of this insular, isolated town of hotel-sized houses, frontier dresses and ponytails.

But Colorado City Superintendent Alvin Barlow said there's only so much you can do to offset the shock on the first day of school when two-thirds of your previous student body, more than 600 students, don't show up.

Like the surreal, deserted corridors.

And no one fighting over the computer terminals.

Or, like in Deloy Bateman's ninth-grade general science class, where he used to cram in more than 30 students by using bar stools and where now 11 students can stretch their legs in the front two rows.

As it turned out, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had heeded the call of their leaders, who had implored them during church services in late July to turn their back on secular society, to cut off ties with apostates, to teach their children at home.

Not that the admonition prevented dozens of children from riding around town during normal school hours on three-wheelers, tractors and bicycles and helping their fathers build additions to their homes and hoeing gardens.

This is harvest season, noted several teenagers remodeling this area's only recognized private school in nearby Centennial Park, where classes will begin in three weeks.

The decision by the dominant "first ward" of the church, which broke away from the mainstream Mormon church in the late 1800s after the taking of plural wives was banned, was greeted warmly by members of the "second ward" of the church. That ward, which also went it own way 10 years ago, created its own polygamous community in Centennial Park, across Arizona 389.

Teachers said that clashes between children of the two polygamous sects had created discipline problems, especially during past school year.

"It's a lot better that they are gone, if you ask me," said Melissa Hammon of Centennial Park after dropping off her 5-year-old son at the Colorado City school. "Eighty percent of the teachers last year were indoctrinating the kids with all the first ward teachings. Now, I think they'll get a better education."

So does Isis Israel, a potter in the nearby community of Cane Beds, who said goodbye to her eighth-grader, Yesod, and first-grader, Asher, as a school bus rumbled into her driveway.

"They illegally broke the classes up for first-ward kids, second-ward kids and then our kids who believe in neither one," Israel said. "I figure this way that it will be more attention for my kids."

Perhaps so, Barlow said.

But Barlow noted that following the exodus of teachers from the school after the demand by Warren Jeffs, head of the fundamentalist sect, the school district had to hire an additional six teachers to keep the ratio at one teacher for each 19 students, which had been the ratio last year. Early counts indicated the school had about 350 students enrolled the first day.

Only about 30 of those students, however, are in high school and more than 200 were enrolled last year. Last month, school officials also announced that elementary school and middle school classes would be merged because of the lack of students in the seventh and eighth grades.

Barlow, however, a member of the first ward, said he would make do with what he has.

"It's just like when Fredonia lost its sawmill, when the strikes shut down the mines in Morenci," Barlow said. "You just adjust and go on. We lost 300 students one year in the 1980s when Phelps School opened across the (Utah state) line in Hildale."

Actually, the mass withdrawal from school might be a blessing in disguise, Barlow said.

"We have the highest tax rate in the state on schools," Barlow said. "There's undoubtedly going to be a significant reduction in that since we will only have about one-third the number of students."

Besides, the students' education at home and in private schools which Barlow says soon will be forming will be just fine.

"I've worked in this district for 38 years and have seen the support for education in this community," Barlow said, noting the success Colorado City students have had in spelling bees and mathematics and arts competitions over the years.

"The last thing people have to worry about are students here getting a good education."

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