Law & Courts

Student Exodus Hits Schools In 2 Towns

By Catherine Gewertz — September 13, 2000 4 min read
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Urged by their leader to home-school their children, members of a fundamentalist religious group have withdrawn nearly two-thirds of the students from the public schools in a small district near the Arizona-Utah state line.

Multiple versions of the events in Colorado City, Ariz., over the past six weeks have been offered, but this much is clear: Enrollment in the Colorado City Unified School District’s three schools plummeted from 988 last year to 350 this year. Two-thirds of its 75 teachers and a good portion of its classified staff also declined to return to work this year, Superintendent Alvin Barlow said.

Across the creek and the state line in Hildale, Utah, Phelps Elementary School’s enrollment dropped from last year’s 220 to 96, and 11 of the 13 teachers resigned, said Principal Max Tolman.

Phelps Elementary and the Colorado City schools serve families of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who settled those towns in polygamous family units decades ago. The Mormon church, which eschewed the practice of polygamy more than a century ago, disavows any connection to the Arizona sect.

In sermons in late July, the Colorado City church’s first counselor, Warren Jeffs, reportedly directed followers to pull their children from the public schools and to minimize contact with those outside the church.

Mr. Jeffs could not be reached, and two church members declined to be interviewed. School employees, however, say they have been told of the directive by churchgoing school families.

Mr. Tolman, the Phelps principal, said teachers had told him frankly that their religious leader had directed them to resign.

And Mike File, who as the superintendent of Arizona’s Mohave County schools has financial oversight of the Colorado City district, said he had heard many such stories.

“Church members have told me that their directive is to teach their children at home with a curriculum the church has designed,” Mr. File said.

Conservative Strategy

James C. Carper, an associate professor of educational history at the University of South Carolina, said such an order wouldn’t be inconsistent with a strategy used by some religious conservatives who find the public school curriculum at odds with their beliefs: to separate from the school system.

Marshall Fritz, the president of the Alliance for the Separation of School & State, a Fresno, Calif.-based nonprofit organization that advocates ending government involvement in education, said he supports the right of parents to remove their children from public school.

“The quality of education will be greatly improved when government is removed from compelling both attendance and content,” he said.

Others reacted to the news in Colorado City with skepticism.

William A. Galston, the director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland in College Park, pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld laws forbidding polygamy.

“It is very troubling indeed if the purpose of schooling a child at home is to reinforce beliefs and patterns of behavior that are contrary to established law,” Mr. Galston said.

Some who have spoken with Fundamentalist church families say that withdrawing their children from the schools and minimizing contact with nonchurch members are part of a process of readying themselves for an imminent ascension to heaven.

Deloy Bateman, a Colorado City high school science teacher who is the father of 17 children, says the three who still adhere to the religion have been told to cut off contact with him because he has left the church.

Some in the area have an even darker view.

“The more isolated [Mr. Jeffs] can make his people, the more he can control them,” said Colorado City resident Lenore Holm, who found herself at odds with the church earlier this year when she opposed the church- arranged marriage of her 16-year-old daughter to an older man with 10 children. She said her daughter is now forbidden to speak to her.

Superintendent Barlow of the Colorado City schools, who is a member of the Fundamentalist church, lamented what he said were misconceptions about the group’s belief system, but he declined to elaborate. He said Mr. Jeffs’ words to his faithful were “certainly an invitation, but not an order” to home-school their children.

Mr. Barlow said he views the shift in his district’s enrollment as part of a nationwide trend toward home schooling and respects the choice of parents who wish to “give children the strength of their heritage” by educating them at home.

Mr. Barlow acknowledged that the withdrawals had created an administrative “challenge” for him. He has closed the junior high school and moved its students to the two buildings used for the elementary and high schools, saving $150,000 for the two-year lease. He anticipates that last year’s $4 million budget will have to be cut by two-thirds, forcing possible reductions in support staff.

But he said the district is used to making do with less, since its property has one of the lowest assessed values of any in the state.

Both Arizona and Utah require parents withdrawing children from public school to file affidavits stating their intent. Few have done so in Colorado City and Hildale, but officials in both states said there is little likelihood that such laws will be enforced.

Mr. File, the Mohave County superintendent, said he wasn’t worried that the home-schooled children’s education would suffer. Many of the teachers who resigned, he said, will be educating their own, very large families.

The area’s parents tend to be deeply committed to education, he said, noting that the Colorado City schools have consistently been top scorers on statewide tests and top prize-takers at spelling bees and academic fairs.

Mr. Barlow concurred. “We’re going to have one of the best little schools in America,” he said.

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