Hildale, UT- Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona are best known as an enclave of the polygamist sect of the FLDS Church. They are small cities. The latest census says the towns total about seven and half thousand people. Even though FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was convicted and sentenced to life for sexually assaulting underage girls in Texas -- most say the FLDS Church remains in control of city hall and law enforcement.
However, some say that grip is loosening up. And the people and community are starting to change. And one of the most noticeable changes is a school that is now rebuilding lives.
Willie Jessop says the winds of change are blowing in Hildale, Utah. "It's very obvious the community is changing a lot." Some of that change is easy to see - like the first major national franchise restaurant - Subway - that recently opened here.
Businesses - once controlled by the Fundamentalist LDS faith - are now opening with private citizens or more friendly polygamist faiths. And dozens of houses that were owned by an FLDS Church trust are now being deeded to individuals. Jessop says "Where there was no private ownership of land the church could control where you ate, where you slept, the house you lived in. And now you're seeing a community that a father can take control of providing a home for his family."
But people here say the most important change - the re-opening of Water Canyon School in Hildale. The small school, that sits at the base of beautiful red rock canyon, re-opened this past fall. Principal Darin Thomas says many of the students "had not been in public education ever before. They'd never even stepped foot in a school. So we're trying to teach them what school is." That's because 13 years ago FLDS leader Warren Jeffs banned public education - and when enrollment dropped - the school closed its doors. Something Ted Barlow remembers well. "You have a whole generation right there that didn't go become doctors, didn't go become nurses, didn't go become scientists, didn't go pursue what they wanted to do." Barlow, who left the FLDS faith four years ago, and works at the school, says that decision was a blow to students and the entire area. "It's very sad because it could have brought so much more to the community."
But that was then. And Thomas says this is now. "We teach them language, social studies, math and we team up with Hurricane High School and the middle school there where the kids go for electives." Those educational opportunities are making a huge impact on students. Ted Barlow, Jr. Is one of those students. "I don't know that I even would have had a life. I could barely read." The 15-year-old started attending the school in the fall and says it has already changed his outlook and ambition."I want to go to college, get a good job, good pay, take care of a family."
And that's that kind of change Jessop - a former FLDS member - loves to talk about. "Obviously the school is probably the greatest, I'd say ray of hope and bright beacon of change in this society where children now are going for academic goals instead of having a society that's driven off of loyalty to the church." Jessop - who once was a body guard for Warren Jeffs - says the school sends a message to those who, like him, leave the FLDS faith. He says it shows everyone there is life outside of the massive walls and seclusion of these homes. "Now we have a school that has come in and opened its doors and opened its hearts, and brought in some of the greatest staff on earth."
Thomas says many of his students are new to the education system - and he points out some are still adjusting. But he adds, its those same children, who often times, lead the way. "I've had students walk in the door and come into my office and say, 'Is it okay if I go to your school?' Just off the streets. And so the children come in, and then they bring their mother or father, and then they get them signed up." Thomas says enrollment at the school continues to grow every month. It started with 146 students and as of February 20th he now has 203 students. He and others, like Ted Barlow, believe - this time - the school and community changes are here to stay. "It has to take its course and it's going to take its course. Nobody can stop it. It's too big, too much, too far to ever get it back to where it used to be."
And the school is growing. ABC 4 Utah was told just last week that the Washington County School District will begin construction at the end of April or beginning of May to convert a massive warehouse near the school into a gym and more classrooms.
That said, we need to point out that while 200 students are in the school a lot more are not. The latest census shows there are about 1200 children under the age of 17 in Hildale. That means the vast majority are not in school and former FLDS members tell us those kids are not getting an education.