Report on Bountiful school leaves questions unanswered

Ministry continues to fund a facility that fails to meet government standards

Vancouver Sun/January 04, 2008

Teaching polygamy is not what landed Mormon Hills School and its directors in trouble with the B.C. education ministry, putting at risk more than $400,000 a year in operating grants.

But for the first time, the ministry's independent-school inspectors acknowledged that nobody had any idea what was being taught in religious studies to more than 100 children registered in Grades 1-9. Even now, all the ministry has is a brief overview.

It was only one of myriad problems, including breaches of the basic requirements of the Independent School Act. According to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, two of the five teachers didn't have accreditation. Criminal records checks had not been done on half the staff. Students in Grades 4 and 7 did not take the required Foundation Skills Assessment tests.

What the ministry's evaluators concluded last February was that there was no way to tell what, if anything, the 14 students in Grades 8 and 9 were learning. Initially registered and funded as home-schooled students through the Kootenay Lake school district's Homelinks program, the students quit in October 2006 and started going to Mormon Hills full time.

"An important conclusion in the Mormon Hills/Homelinks issue is that because there are delivery standards for public distributed learning, the Mormon Hills community chose another approach that did not meet standards for independent neighbourhood school delivery," according to a note prepared for deputy minister Emery Dosdall.

For English, math, science and social studies, students used course materials purchased from Kelowna-based ProActive Curriculum Ltd.

Inspectors found no evidence that the courses met the ministry's prescribed learning outcomes.

The Spanish course, one hour of instruction a week or about 35 hours in the school year, is a third of what the ministry requires. Art was taught only two hours a week. French was graded as a simple pass-fail, as was physical education, which had a limited scope because the school doesn't have a gymnasium.

The computer lab has 20 computers, but no Internet connection. Students were were taught keyboarding, but the teacher wasn't qualified to teach the course.

The school used the Web-based version of the old health and career education program. But as the inspection report drily noted, "As the school is not connected to the Web, this is problematic in a number of respects."

(Previous evaluations were highly critical of how the career education program was delivered. Girls' only career choices were cooking, cleaning and child-minding.)

When inspectors looked at Grade 8 and 9 students' report cards, they were "virtually identical reports." How other students are doing is also unclear.

The Grade 7 teacher didn't keep any assessment records. Students kept their tests and assignments in a binder and when report cards were due, the teacher reviewed the binders and assigned a grade.

Only one Grade 7 student and two Grade 4 pupils wrote the required Foundation Skills Assessment tests. Evaluators were told that parents refused permission for their children to take the tests because of ads in the local paper by the "Concerned Teachers of the Cranbrook Teachers' Association" advising students not to take the tests because they have "many negative effects on teaching and learning."

That's not all. Facilities are "make-shift and not easy to keep clean and tidy." There was no anti-bully or harassment policy in place.

There was also a funding issue. Because there are no fixed rules for withdrawals and re-enrolments from Homelinks, the local school district may have continued receiving per-capita funds for the students who went back to Mormon Hills.

Since the initial report, the school authority has filed an acceptable anti-bullying policy, plans for assessing and monitoring Grade 7 French and physical education and course overviews for all the religious studies programs -- copies of which were not included in the FOI package.

What was included was a list of the four "programs" for religious studies. One focuses on the sermons of the fundamentalists' seventh prophet, LeRoy Johnson. During his 32 years as the prophet, Johnson had a "revelation" about placement marriage that took away a woman's right to decide when and whom to marry.

Johnson also had a revelation that the prophet was infallible, setting in place the structure that allowed the current prophet Warren Jeffs to exercise absolute control over an estimated 10,000 followers. (Jeffs is in a Utah prison serving two consecutive terms of five years to life as an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl -- one of the forced brides.)

The other three centre on the Bible, The Book of Mormon and The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Despite the school's name and Mormon holy books on its religious curriculum, the school and its spiritual leader Winston Blackmore are not affiliated with the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which disavowed the earthly practice of polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates anyone who practises it.

Mormons ought to point that out to the education ministry, since it continues to refer to both Mormon Hills and Bountiful elementary-secondary school as teaching "Mormon doctrine."

Despite all the problems, Mormon Hills School retains Group 1 accreditation and funding for its Grades 1-7 programs. It succeeded in qualifying for Group 3 accreditation for Grades 8 and 9, which means it currently gets no funds for those programs but is on track to get Group 1 certification and funding. And it is seeking Group 3 status for its new Grade 10 program.

It retains those certifications even though the community makes no secret of the fact that children are taught that unless they practise the criminal offence of polygamy, they will not get to the highest realm of heaven. The school has the government seal of approval even though its students are taught strict obedience to their leaders in everything, including whom and when to marry.

Why? Because beyond the requirements to teach the provincial curriculum, the only limits the B.C. Independent School Act places on schools is that they "must not offer programs that in theory or in practice will promote or foster doctrines of racial or ethnic superiority or persecution, religious intolerance or persecution, social change through violent action, or sedition."

What does Education Minister Shirley Bond think of all of this? Who knows? At the minister's request, recommended responses to questions about Mormon Hills School were deleted from the FOI package.

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