New school provides hope, second chances for FLDS community

Deseret News/August 19, 2014

By Amy Donaldson

Hildale, Utah -- Water Canyon School may look like just another public school.

But for the community it’s designed to serve, it is a symbol of hope and possibility. It is also the embodiment of second chances.

“The whole thing is a miracle,” said Willie Jessop, a former leader and spokesman for the Fundamentalist LDS Church. “Our community needed some hope, and the school is that hope. That’s the brightest light the community has had in many years. It’s a chance to educate itself out of the problems it’s created.”

When the Water Canyon School opens its doors to students on Monday morning with an enrollment of 164 students, it will be serving children whose parents once viewed public education as an impediment to spiritual growth.

“I live in the society,” Jessop said, “and we live with the results of the decisions the society made. … The only thing that we’ve all been able to agree on is education. I knew if that district would provide that light of hope (the school), the community would migrate to it and do something positive for itself.”

The same community that turned its back on the school 13 years ago has embraced it in ways no one expected. Washington County School District assistant superintendent Craig Hammer said people showed up to help remodel the building, and last month they chose a name for the school that will serve preschool through high school students. And the enrollment has exceeded all projections. All involved hope this is just the beginning of positive change.

“I think once it opens," Hammer said, "it is just going to blossom."

Water Canyon School started out as Phelps Elementary. Enrollment dropped so severely because the FLDS Church discouraged attendance that in 2000, the district closed the school. It was subsequently sold to FLDS leadership, and classrooms were converted into offices.

Jessop said the district has extended the kind of support to the community that even he didn’t expect.

“It was very awkward to go back to a school district that had already built a new school in the community and the community had not supported it, they’d pulled their children out of it, and go back on our knees asking them to give us help,” he said. “What makes this story so unbelievable is that knowing what the district had done (in the past), they chose to support these kids. Seeing every day the cost, the work they’ve put in, it’s melted my heart knowing the school district would do that. They just said, ‘There will be no excuses to leave these children without an education.’ I love that attitude.”

The school, led by first-time principal Darrin Thomas, will be serving a community that’s known nothing but turmoil for the last decade. The most significant issues began when FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was charged with sexual assault in 2006. He even spent a few months on “America’s Most Wanted” lists before he was arrested and convicted. His imprisonment made a bad situation worse for many families, most of whom had followed Jeffs’ directives without question, including forfeiting personal property to the FLDS Church leadership.

Jessop said that some families sought educational opportunities for their children elsewhere, including Hurricane and in Arizona. Others tried to home-school their children, but most were unable to give their children the kind of education that would allow them to get jobs or pursue opportunities outside the FLDS community.

Jessop said it was heartbreaking to see what more than a decade without public education did to the community he loves.

“Do you put a guardrail at the top of the hill or an ambulance at the bottom,” Jessop asked. “Having no education for 13 years left them extremely vulnerable to be used as victims.”

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