Water Canyon School graduation
HILDALE, Utah — In one of the twin cities along the Utah-Arizona border known since their founding in the mid-20th century as the unofficial headquarters of polygamy, Monday's high school graduation looked normal — exactly how officials intended it to be.
But Water Canyon High School was created from scratch four years ago, meeting in the rundown elementary school building with no internet and no air-conditioning. The Short Creek community — the original name for the towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona — had gone 13 years without a public school after Warren Jeffs, president and prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said the town's county school was full of evil and instructed members not to attend.
Water Canyon High's 2018 graduating class has 30 students. They are the first to go to high school for all four years at Water Canyon, which moved in April 2016 into a new building with modern facilities, technology and sports fields.
► April 8: 10 years after Texas ranch raid, some children of polygamy are talking
► April 4: Outsiders, FLDS battle for control of towns Warren Jeffs left behind
► June 16: Fugitive polygamist in food stamp fraud case arrested in South Dakota
“Now it’s our turn to make a difference in the world and do the best we can do,” said valedictorian Nicole Carol Seay, explaining that she was grateful to have been a part of the school’s unusual journey.
The student body has grown from 140 that first year to 550 this year, and the graduating class ballooned from a single graduate in 2015 to four the second year and 25 last year.
"I’ve seen us rise up and make our voices heard throughout the state of Utah," said Principal Darin Thomas, who will become principal next school year at Hurricane High School in Hurricane, Utah, about 25 miles away.
► October 2016: Utah-Arizona stateline towns see new life after Warren Jeffs turmoil
► August 2016: 3 in polygamous sect rearrested in Utah food-stamp case
He shared students' recent accomplishments from the all-girls wrestling team's state championship to the school choir's statewide recognition.
Administrators rattled off the names of dozens of scholarships awarded to the graduates, totaling tens of thousands of dollars. Many are planning to attend nearby colleges and universities, especially Dixie State University in nearby St. George.
Their plans include going on Mormon church missions, working on advanced degrees, becoming teachers and builders and starting their own businesses.
• Lensie Jessop loves photography and wants to travel the world.
• Tenesia LeBaron hopes to start her own bakery someday.
• Maranda Phelps had ideas about being a writer, a singer and an actress, and maybe a therapist.
Hildale, once was solely the domain of the Fundamentalist Mormon church, now by many counts has become majority "apostate," the FLDS term for a former church member, and outsider.
Having made it through the challenges of Water Canyon’s early days, the class of 2018 should be uniquely prepared to face whatever changes life might bring, said David Stirland, president of the Washington County School Board.
Jeffs is serving a life sentence for sexual assault stemming from his illegal marriages to underage girls. His home here has been turned into a community resource center.
Last year, Hildale elected its first non-FLDS mayor, Donia Jessop. And the city recently announced plans for its police department, long controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, to hire an outside chief.
Follow David DeMille on Twitter: @SpectrumDeMille