Uzona Students Learn Three R's From a Different Perspective

Salt Lake Tribune/October 22, 2001
By Heather May

Colorado City, Ariz. -- At the Utah-Arizona border, students at the polygamist-run Uzona Home School spend their days much like their peers in public schools.

The 300 or so students, who were pulled out of public schools last summer at their religious leaders' urging, take English, health, math and computer classes. Posters hanging on the walls of the K-12 school urge them to be prompt and dependable.

"For the most part it's just a school, education of the young people, the three R's, reading, writing, arithmetic," says Rulon Jessop, Uzona's principal. But that's where the similarities end.

Fundamental religious precepts are woven throughout the curriculum. There is a harvest festival, but no Halloween activities. There is no Christmas break, but students do get Dec. 6 off to observe the birthday of "Uncle Rulon." Rulon T. Jeffs is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The author of the inspirational posters -- with messages such as "Lessons and attendance are part of the great preparation. Your part is to be here and do this work" -- is church member "FMJ."

Uzona is one of a handful of private schools that opened in the twin polygamist towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., after students defected from the public school system. They left after church leaders encouraged parents last summer to take responsibility for their children's education.

About 900 students left Colorado City Middle School and the K-8 Phelps School in Hildale. The middle school, which originally was owned by the polygamist community, is now home to Uzona. Phelps remains closed.

The 600 or so students who do not attend Uzona are presumably home schooled or attend one of at least 10 private schools in the area.

About 15 or so Phelps students, whose families don't belong to the FLDS faith, attend a public K-12 school in Colorado City; Utah's Washington County School District foots their out-of-state, $40,000 tuition bill.

The lack of government oversight of the private and home schools worries Utah officials, who say there is no way to know what kind of education the children are receiving.

School administrators share only limited information about Uzona and are wary of visitors. Jessop declined to let a reporter tour the school or observe a classroom, saying, "We can't trust people. Information goes out as distorted."

Rex Wilkey, a Washington County assistant superintendent, wishes there was a way to draw the community back to Phelps.

"We still feel badly we don't have a school out there," Wilkey said. "They'll [parents] do everything they can to educate their kids."

But, "Can they do what we can do?"

Uzona officials and a leader of another Colorado City private school dismiss such concerns, saying they can do far more than Phelps could to educate students, since they can teach children about their religious and cultural heritage.

"The basics are going to be the same, reading, writing, math and sciences," said Dan Barlow, mayor of Colorado City and an FLDS elder who runs Morningside Private School. But, "You're going to take it from a different perspective, a religious background." "Our goal is to make good citizens," said Richard Allred, a Uzona teacher and adviser. "It's obvious public schools are failing to make good citizens -- people who are honest, people who don't try to take advantage of their fellow man, people who go to class to learn."

Control of their children's education wasn't the only reason church members pulled out of the public school system.

FLDS leaders also reportedly urged the move because they didn't want members to associate with apostates -- though that issue is now being downplayed.

Apocalyptic fears, too, reportedly played into FLDS leader Warren Jeffs' admonishment to followers to withdraw into the community.

"The last few weeks has only emphasized that," said Alvin Barlow, superintendent of Colorado City's public schools and a FLDS member.

About a mile north of Uzona, in the shadow of the Vermillion Cliffs, is the empty Phelps School. Plywood covers the windows and doors. A chain link fence topped with razor wire guards an entrance in the back. The grass is overgrown with weeds in some patches and one lone boy's black cowboy boot lays on the sidewalk.

It was a short life for the $1.5 million school, which was built in 1986, though it is possible Phelps will bustle with children again some day.

Kolene Granger, Washington County superintendent, said the polygamist community has shown interest in leasing or buying the building, though it has no immediate plans to do so.

In the years before Phelps closed, officials worked to accommodate the community's values in the school's curriculum and materials to gain FLDS church members' support, Wilkey said.

District officials say the school library got rid of books that depicted talking animals and fantasy worlds and teachers avoided any mention of dinosaurs, though a former principal disputes that. Halloween wasn't celebrated and Christmas was soft-pedaled.

When it became clear that FLDS members planned to leave the school, Wilkey offered to make other changes, such as giving "release" time so that students could take religious classes during the day, as many Mormon high school and junior high students do. Wilkey also suggested students come for just a half day to take classes such as math, reading, computer and band.

The efforts failed and there was little Wilkey could do to convince parents to keep their children at the school.

"There weren't any issues," Wilkey said. "They say, 'It's an issue with our prophet, our religious leaders.' What do you say to that?"

Nevertheless, Wilkey is hopeful church leaders will change their minds and the district will be able to reopen the school.

"Financially, it would be better for us to walk away," he said, given the costs of staffing and operating a school. But district officials aren't ready to give up yet, believing Hildale students deserve the same opportunities other Washington County kids get.

Alvin Barlow, the Colorado City superintendent, agrees the students might be missing out in certain subjects like science, because public schools have resources for labs. But he can see students have gained something in return.

"There's a cleaner, fresher, brighter look to some of the children," he said. "The key is not so much where children are being taught but that they are being taught."

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