CENTENNIAL PARK, Ariz. – LeAnne Timpson stands outside a computer classroom at Masada Charter School, watching fifth-grade students practice their typing skills.
Pear. Pole. Squid. Stale. Dad. Hiss. Dip. Pails. Top. The students tap the words out, hitting more right letters than wrong ones despite the bright orange cover that hides the keys.
Timpson greets a trio of girls who are returning to class after a dress rehearsal for the fourth-grade play, a production about environmental responsibility titled “Celebrate the Earth, a Musical.” The girls are still trilling, only now they have picked up a tune from “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Masada, the K-9 charter school in the polygamous community of Centennial Park, appears vibrant and thriving. That is why Timpson, the school’s administrator, is so frustrated by her inability to find teachers willing to work here.
The nationwide teacher shortage has hit rural areas particularly hard, as schools like Masada struggle to match salaries. Lack of housing is an issue, too, requiring teachers to commute from Hurricane, St. George or Kanab.
But Timpson believes Masada faces another challenge: Overcoming negative publicity about polygamy, much of it focused on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The sect populates two towns a mile or so north.
Timpson believes the FLDS’ troubles – leader Warren Jeffs faces criminal charges and the group’s property trust is now run by a court-appointed overseer – have skewed views of all polygamists. Among the misperceptions: children in so-called fundamentalist Mormon communities are poorly educated.
“People are not separating whatever issues there are with the FLDS,” she said.
Timpson had little trouble filling six jobs two years ago, before the FLDS began dominating the news. But last year, she couldn’t get candidates to interview for three positions once they learned of Masada’s ties to a polygamous community. Callers would hang up, say “No way!” or fail to show up.
“I’d never experienced that before,” said Timpson.
Timpson finally filled two jobs by snagging teachers from a public school and a community college nearby. She has ads out this year for five full-time jobs: a kindergarten teacher, two elementary teachers and two in the junior high. She has had a few calls and sent out three applications; none have come back yet.
All she wants, Timpson said, is a chance to show prospective teachers what Masada offers.
Computers, collaboration: Masada, which now has 342 students, opened in 2001 with an ambitious mission: provide a first-rate education that emphasizes technological literacy, parental involvement and a foundation for lifelong learning. Collaboration and reflection are key values at the school.
“If kids are taught to think critically, to make good choices, learn independently and solve problems, they have an advantage in life,” said Timpson, a graduate of Southern Utah University and Northern Arizona University with a master’s degree in educational leadership.
After ninth grade, students choose between a public school in Colorado City or Centennial Park’s private high school, Colorado City Academy.
Last year, the Arizona Department of Education gave Masada a “performing plus” rating – the highest available for the state’s schools. In most grades and subjects, they outscore students statewide.
There is a distinctly conservative air at Masada. Students wear uniforms and teachers are expected to adhere to a dress code. Each school day begins with the pledge of allegiance and a moment of silence for reflection. Children use ”Ms.” or ”Mr.” and first names when addressing teachers.
Classes are limited to 25 or fewer students. All children attend a computer lab twice a week; from fifth grade on up there is one laptop for every two students. By sixth grade, students are expected to master use of computers and the Internet for research and projects.
“We had some new kids enter junior high and their inability to use computers really showed,” Timpson said.
The school’s reliance on technology surprises visitors. Timpson said that when Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard visited, he noted the computers and asked when the school would plug into the Internet.
“We already have that on our computers,” Timpson told him.
Once in junior high, students participate in a self-selected learning project. Each student picks one or more topics to explore – dance choreography, rocket science, marine life, ecology – and is given time on Fridays to develop that interest through research and work with a mentor. The projects are showcased three times a year.
‘It just looked so normal:’ For Masada’s 20 full-time and five part-time teachers, skill development is ongoing. School is dismissed early once a month to give teachers time to work on lesson plans, do research and explore new teaching methods. Teachers are encouraged to participate in peer coaching.
“If you want to improve yourself as a teacher, this is a good place for you,” Timpson said.
Deborah Clark, one of two teachers who commutes to Masada from St. George, said she’s “never worked as hard as a teacher in my life.”
Masada’s philosophy of collaboration extends to parents, who must put in 15 hours of volunteer time each year.
There are things new teachers must get used to – and it’s not just the slippers students wear to keep from tracking southern Utah’s red dirt into the school.
In a display of artwork, a handful of last names are repeated over and over: Hammon, Dockstader and Timpson among them.
Clark, who has a dozen years of teaching experience, admits she “came with fear and trepidation,” mostly because of stories she had heard about the FLDS.
Her fears dissipated the minute she walked through Masada’s doors. She saw posters advertising Love & Logic classes for parents, the tidy building and the warmth of the staff.
“It just looked so normal,” said Clark. “I didn’t expect so much openness.”
Clark, who teaches a split first/second grade class, admits students found her a novelty at first. Some were puzzled, Clark said, by the fact there is just one mother in her family. Worries about how she might be treated proved needless, though.
At the same time, Clark has had to get used to the quirks of polygamous family life. Last Halloween, one student shared plans to go trick-or-treating, telling Clark that, “We stay in our home because it’s so big we can door-to-door.”
Clark describes her students as “just as cute, sometimes mischievous, if perhaps more serious when it comes to matter of religion. They are very aware of what they believe, very staunch. It’s such a part of their lives.”
Timpson said that Clark and the few other teachers who come from outside Centennial Park add a critical diversity. “It is good for our school to have a variety of people, to get different perspectives and ideas,” she said.
But student teacher advisers at Northern Arizona University and Southern Utah University said Masada may have to do what other rural communities do: Grow their own teachers.
Mark Marriott, a field service coordinator at SUU, said students drive their placements and he just doesn’t have any who express interest in Centennial Park.
”I’m not sure if it is ‘won’t’ or ‘don’t,’ but most want to go back home to areas where they grew up or where a spouse is going,” he said. ”If I were to ask how many would be interested in going there, I don’t think many would even have thought it was possible.”