Polygamous community schooling raises concerns

FLDS education: In a class by themselves

Salt Lake Tribune/October 28, 2006
By Brooke Adams

A southern Utah polygamous sect has shuttered its school buildings and returned to home schools - a move that comes as pressure mounts to investigate allegations of educational neglect in the community.

The Jeffs Academy has moved out of the former public school building it used for the past four years, and the Barlow and Holm family school buildings are empty. They were among about a dozen private schools set up by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous sect based in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

The shift to home schooling, according to several sources, is aimed at shielding children and families from the media and government scrutiny triggered by the search for and arrest of FLDS leader Warren S. Jeffs.

Instead, it is drawing more attention to the FLDS community.

Among those keeping tabs: Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who said that if a federal task force forms to investigate polygamy, as suggested by a Nevada senator, education may be on the table.

"I am certainly going to make that an issue," he said.

Pulling out: Little is known about the sect's educational program, which is based on a curriculum developed by Warren S. Jeffs. Kevin Barlow, who is said to oversee the school system, did not return a call from The Salt Lake Tribune, and his publicly listed telephone was subsequently disconnected.

The FLDS pulled their children out of the public school system in 2000, as directed by then-leader Rulon T. Jeffs. As a result, the Washington County School District closed Phelps Elementary in Hildale.

Initially, families home-schooled their children, with varying degrees of success. Eventually, some family groups organized more formal private schools. Among them: the Jeffs Academy, which moved into the Phelps building after the district sold it to the Twin Cities Improvement Association.

Since then, most descriptions of the educational system have come from teens who have fled or been kicked out of the community and report leaving school by 10th grade or sooner.

"My experience has been that it is rare to see someone who finished the eighth grade," said Roger Hoole, a Salt Lake City attorney representing six teens who have sued Jeffs and the sect's property trust.

But other children do attend high school, a fact confirmed by several sources and based on observations and information obtained by The Tribune (see http://blogs.sltrib.com /plurallife).

A 17-year-old girl told The Tribune earlier this year that she was in the 10th grade at Uzona Home School when she fled the community. Another former student described the school as "pretty good."

The teens were interviewed after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s ceremonial signing of the state's new emancipation law, which was adopted partly in response to concern about the schooling FLDS teens receive.

Typically, teens who have left the community say they quit school by the 10th grade, sometimes sooner, to go to work.

"I don't know a single one of them that really finished school," said Hoole, whose offer to settle his clients' lawsuits proposes a fund to provide, among other things, educational assistance for former community members. "They were typically pulled out and sent to work. That's why there is such an urgency to help them with education. Now, maybe some are getting it, but I'm not aware of it."

In the past, some FLDS members attended college, but Tribune sources say no one is currently, though some may pursue advanced education through online resources and other means.

The community has a number of highly regarded teachers, including some who previously worked for the Colorado City Unified School District.

"If they are educating their kids at home, I would bet they are doing a good job of it," said LeAnne Timpson, administrator for the Masada Charter School in Centennial Park, a separate fundamentalist Mormon community a mile south of the twin cities.

Timpson took a job with the Colorado City district in August 2000, just as the FLDS pulled out.

"We were trying to create a schedule and looked at the previous year's schedule and were blown away by the number of classes and specialty classes offered," said Timpson, ticking off courses in botany, chemistry, math, vocational education and Advanced Placement subjects.

Yet, she acknowledged that some families have an agricultural-era view of education, seeing it as less necessary than helping out with the family business.

One FLDS member described the sect's approach to education as varied.

''Some believe the very basic rudimentary education can be attained by grade eight and then apply a more practical 'work ethic' education by having the children assist in the family business,'' said Merrill Palmer in an e-mail to The Tribune. "There are other families that inherently and staunchly hold fast to the belief that post-secondary education is the only way to achieve success in life."

The FLDS community is much like the world at large, said Palmer, who is principal of the Bountiful Elementary-Secondary School in the FLDS community of Bountiful, British Columbia.

'Equally effective': "You can choose public school, private school, boarding school, home school, online school, Montessori, Waldorf or the school of hard knocks, and the point is, they are all equally effective if monitored consistently," Palmer said.

Palmer said 22 students graduated from his high school in the past three years; some went to college and some to work. Some students have left 10th grade "for a variety of reasons, primarily employment."

The school receives government funds and thus is regulated - something lacking in the FLDS community in Utah and Arizona.

In Utah, the compulsory education law applies to children ages 6 to 18. In Arizona, it is 6 to 16 or completion of the 10th grade. Home schools are supposed to cover the same material taught in public schools and operate 180 days a year.

But in both states, home and private schools receive minimal state oversight; there is no testing, certification or regulations they must meet, though they can voluntarily participate in such programs.

Home-schooling families are required to file an exemption certificate with the local school board, in which they agree to meet certain educational standards.

"Many of [the families] don't do that, and we don't have the enforcement mechanism to go out and make them," said Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the state Board of Education.

Several members of the Utah Safety Net Committee have suggested that failure to comply with home-schooling rules justifies an investigation.

The committee, which acts as a bridge between polygamous communities and government service providers, is forming a coalition to look at revising home-schooling laws to provide state oversight.

"We want accountability; we want testing," said Joni Holm, a committee member.

That, however, could be tough in Utah, where 7,573 children are home-schooled.

In 2005, the Utah Legislature amended the law so home and private schools no longer must keep attendance records, use certified teachers, allow inspections of their facilities or participate in standardized testing.

"We have huge concerns about home schooling, but the political trend is definitely against us," Lear said. "There is very much an attitude that if parents say they want to teach their children and will teach their children, no one has the right to second-guess that or ask for proof."

To date, Holm and her husband, Carl, who grew up in the twin towns, have taken in three children from the FLDS community, all of them behind in their educations. A 14-year-old boy who came to live with them in August, a year after being kicked out of his home, tested at a first-grade level, Holm said.

That anecdote bolsters the view that some FLDS families may be ill-equipped to home-school - an observation made recently during a court hearing for the United Effort Plan Trust, a communal property trust once run by the sect.

Bruce R. Wisan, the fiduciary who has managed the trust since May 2005, told a Utah judge he was "very much bothered" by the move to home schools.

"It will raise a generation of uneducated children if home schooling persists," said Wisan, who just sent a letter to FLDS leaders asking them about the status of 10 buildings used as schools. "That is like no school. They don't have the materials, the training, to do that."

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