New school provides hope, second chances for FLDS community

HILDALE — 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.”

Jessop decided he needed to go to the district for help. He met with Hammer, who was skeptical that the district could do much more than provide bus service to the students who wanted to attend school in Hurricane.

Because the FLDS community was so isolated, even constructing a wall around its property at one point, integrating into regular classrooms would have been difficult. Add to the equation that many children are below grade level in most subjects, and the situation became even more delicate and complicated.

Jessop said that going to the school district after the FLDS community had abandoned earlier efforts to provide the children educational opportunities was humbling and difficult.

“But we have a society in crisis,” he said. “It’s going to have to be dealt with through education or incarceration.”

To Jessop’s surprise, the Washington County School District embraced the community and its children and opted to remodel and reopen the school in Hildale.

“It’s such a relief,” he said of the district’s efforts to open the school in just a few months time. “We haven’t had this kind of break.”

Hammer, who was once a principal at Dixie High, said when Jessop first came to him, he wasn’t sure what could be worked out in just a few months. What he didn’t know is that Utah was paying Arizona to educate those children who chose to attend school across the border. Unfortunately, the WPU (amount of money spent on each pupil) in Arizona is much more than it is in Utah, and Arizona officials had told Utah education officials that they needed more money to continue taking the students.

“So we had to do something with these kids,” Hammer said. “It was just a real sensitive, different kind of thing.”

The district staff met with school board officials and they began discussing options. One of those was buying the school from Jessop, who’d offered to trade the school for tax credits. When that couldn’t be worked out, the district decided simply to buy the school back and renovate it for the community.

“I know we have a legal obligation to do this,” Hammer said. “Even more than that, though, we have a moral obligation to educate those kids.”

Thomas, a former math teacher, said he chose to apply for the job because he’d become acquainted with many members of the FLDS community when he worked as a uniform delivery driver a decade ago.

“I felt, as I had established friendships and relationships, that I had a pretty good chance of being accepted by the community,” Thomas said.

He said the biggest issue is that the building sat empty for so long, it needed a lot of work to prepare it for classes by Aug. 11. He said he’s had no shortage of help as he prepares for the first day of school, including donations of time and equipment from other schools.

“The No. 1 thing that’s encouraged me is the support,” Thomas said. “It’s been incredible. Everybody from the school board to the administration to the teachers hired, to the parents and the children, I haven’t heard very many negative things at all. They’re so grateful the school is opening, and this is such a good thing for our community.” He expects leading Water Canyon School will have some issues and some challenges, but he also sees a desire in the families he’s now serving.

“They see that we are here to help their children be successful,” he said. “From what I can gather, they want their children to be treated like any other child in the district. They want them to have the same benefits, the same joys, the same opportunities that any other person is entitled to.”

Jessop, who has children attending Water Canyon School, echoed those sentiments.

“We’re just so grateful,” Jessop said. “They’ve worked day and night to get this school ready. It’s put people in the community to work who didn’t have jobs. That light has literally gotten brighter and brighter, and we really needed something positive.”