School in FLDS community opens after 13-year shutdown

KSL TV News, Utah/December 8, 2014

By Devon Dolan

Hildale -- Thirteen years ago, the head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Warren Jeffs, banned his followers from receiving public education. Children stopped going to class, forcing a school in Hildale to shut down — but today those doors are open.

“Everything we’ve ever believed to be true is now being questioned,” said Darin Thomas, principal of Water Canyon School.

Thomas is teaching around 200 students, many formerly home-schooled, to do things they've never done — like sit in a classroom for six hours, learn from new teachers, and play games.

Thomas said the students are learning “how to play kickball, how to play basketball — things that I think the rest of mainstream America takes for granted."

As the school's first employee, Thomas quickly hired all of the staff, janitors and teachers. Among them, Lolene Gifford, a teacher who taught in the same building in the early 1990s.

“I felt like this is a calling: You really need to go help these kids. They need you,” Gifford said. “They don’t even know all the continents of the earth. They don’t know what different cultures have to offer. They don’t … what they don’t know is appalling."

Some of the students are a grade or two below what teachers expected, but they remain hopeful.

“This might be the highlight of my career,” said Craig Hammer, executive director of secondary schools and physical facilities for Washington County School District.

 Hammer was approached by Willie Jessop last March, when the FLDS Church still owned the building. The public school district bought it back, and nine months later Water Canyon had its very first school dance.

“It gives these children and this community a chance,” Hammer said.

Even with new opportunities, many students still don't know what to believe, but they do know they'll never go back to the way they were.

“We’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere,” Hammer said.

There are still a lot of children in the community who are not getting a public education, and school officials plan on expanding. They have a second facility where they will build a gym, locker rooms and additional classrooms for high school students.

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