New school in Utah polygamous community grows larger

Hilldale, Utah - For children from the polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border, the school year began Thursday with handshakes, fist-bumps and hugs from Principal Darin Thomas.

"We are going to have so much fun here," Thomas announced over the public address system.

The K-12 Water Canyon School has nearly doubled in size for the start of its second year serving the small desert town of Hildale, Utah, reported The Spectrum in St. George.

"We had an incredible year one," said Thomas, who was recognized as the 2014-15 Rural School Principal of the Year by the Utah Association of Elementary School Principals.

"We started last year at 162 students. We ended in May with 220. And we are sitting at 288 (on the rolls) right now," he explained. "We feel like that is our biggest success."

Until Water Canyon opened last year, Hildale residents had been without public education for a decade. The Washington County School District withdrew from the community 14 years ago.

Under the leadership of Warren Jeffs, the polygamous community known as The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-Day Saints had turned away from outside influences it considered degrading. Enrollment at the local elementary school plummeted from 400 students to fewer than a dozen after Jeffs repeatedly told his followers to leave the public school system.

Jeffs is currently serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides. He is thought to still be leading the sect from prison, however, with the help of one of his brothers.

"The school was shut down at the request of the leadership of the church community at the time - they wanted us out," Water Canyon Superintendent Larry Bergeson said last year. "Now, it's under the community's request, not the church, that we return."

Thomas said parents have been comparing notes with neighbors on the school's performance and are now showing up "in droves."

About 80 new high-school-aged students have enrolled this year, increasing energy and excitement for the older kids, according to history teacher Jason Gough.

The students picking up their schedules on Thursday were dressed in a variety of styles. Some were clad in the long-sleeved plaid shirts or plain long dresses of the polygamist community. Others wore tie-dyed T-shirts, backward ball caps, colored hair or facial piercings.

Construction will begin in January on a separate building for grades seven through 12, said Thomas. After the public schools left, some Hildale students traveled 25 miles to Hurricane for electives, but Thomas says those classes are now offered in town.

"We have art classes, math classes, language, science, social studies, family consumer sciences and business classes," he said.