Vancouver Sun - Canada February 17, 2011
The tragedy of Bountiful's students
Although children in Mormon schools are among the brightest and best-educated, many of their academic dreams will go unfulfilled
by Daphne Bramham | Opinion
The children of Bountiful are among the brightest and best educated in British Columbia.
If their scores on the Foundation Skills Assessment tests are accurate and the Fraser Institute's ranking is correct, it's a stunning turnaround for Bountiful elementary-secondary school (BESS), whose motto is "Inspired Learning Comes from Fervent Prayer."
Only two decades ago, two of the 14 questions on the Grade 11 biology exam were: How many goldfish are in the aquarium? And, What do the following terms have in common: birdie; eagle; divot; greener [sic]; bogey; handicap; "&*%$#@? @!
The final exam question required students to state their views on placement (arranged) marriage, obedience, faith and the raising of children.
As recently as 2007, the education ministry's external evaluation report noted that the children were using outdated and unapproved reading material from Alta Academy. That was the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) school in Salt Lake City that had closed a decade earlier.
(The academy's principal was Warren Jeffs, who is now the FLDS prophet and is awaiting trial in Texas on two counts of sex with minors and bigamy.)
This year's ranking of BESS was a first. Up until 2010, there were not enough students writing the tests to meet the Fraser Institute's criteria for publishing the results. However, the Bountiful students have been taking the tests for the past 11 years, and not always as successfully.
According to the 2007 evaluation report to the Inspector of Independent Schools, the test results that year met expectations, but the scores "reflected the need for review ... in the areas of reading and numeracy."
What makes the improved BESS results all the more surprising is that most of the teachers are not university graduates and teach on special permits issued by the independent-school inspector. At least one of the teachers doesn't even have a valid high-school diploma, which she wasn't aware of until last month, when she testified for the FLDS in the constitutional reference case to determine whether Canada's polygamy law is valid.
Known as Witness No. 2, she was surprised to learn that her certificate from BESS isn't accepted by any B.C. universities. Her BESS certificate, however, has been accepted by Southern Utah University, where she has spent the past two summers taking education classes.
In an affidavit filed in B.C. Supreme Court, BESS principal Merrill Palmer claimed 49 students had graduated since 2003 and that 24 had gone on to post-secondary education.
"Considering that there were only 11 students enrolled in Grade 12 since 2003-'04, it would not be possible for BESS to graduate 49 students," Edward Vanderboom, B.C.'s independent-school inspector, replied in his own affidavit.
Government records indicate that in the past two decades only 13 students who attended BESS have received Dogwood Certificates, and only seven have received adult graduation diplomas.
BESS is one of two independent schools in Bountiful, which together last year received $1.83 million in provincial funding. The other, Mormon Hills School, which is controlled by ousted FLDS bishop Winston Blackmore, ranked 98th of 875 schools.
Unlike BESS, Mormon Hills has qualified to issue Dogwood Certificates starting next year. Despite that, Vanderboom noted in his affidavit that since the school opened in 2003-'04, each year the number of students in the upper grades has declined and only six students who have ever attended Mormon Hills have received a Dogwood Certificate, which they took through a distancelearning program, and only five have received adult graduation diplomas.
Truman Oler, whose mother, Memory, teaches secondaryschool classes at BESS, testified at the polygamy trial that education is so undervalued that he didn't even know there was such a thing as college until he left the community.
Oler was encouraged to leave school and go to work at 16.
The joke, he said, among the boys, is that they only need to count to 175, which is the number of poles that go into a bundle at the church-operated mill. That said, the gender gap on the Grade 7 literacy and numeracy results at Bountiful are no different from the provincial average. That suggests that despite the community's insularity, these kids are little different than anywhere else.
Like students at other topranked independent schools such as Crofton House, St. George's and York House, kids at BESS no doubt dream of being doctors, pilots, fashion designers or whatever.
But unlike those other kids, the world is not open to the bright little sprites at BESS.
Few are likely to finish high school. Fewer still will be allowed to go to university, college or even trade schools.
Their religious leaders won't allow it.
And that's a tragedy.
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