Initially, the differences between Liahona Academy in Pleasant Grove, the state’s only LDS-based high school, and other schools around the state are subtle.
There are the usual educational posters and decorations on the walls. But there are also LDS hymnals under some of the desks, and the books on the teacher’s desk include “The Sermons and Writings of President Ezra Taft Benson.” There are pictures of the second coming of Jesus Christ. In the men’s restroom, 22 books on LDS Church history, as well as state and national history and a pile of LDS Church magazines are stacked on the toilet lid.
In addition, every classroom is a digital film studio, and most class periods are recorded to be sold to more than 1,200 home schooling families.
More than 130 students attend Liahona Academy. A new $1.5 million facility for the school was approved by Pleasant Grove’s City Council late Tuesday and will initially increase that to 230, and eventually to 400 students.
In an Algebra II class on Wednesday, there were few references to religion — until the end-of-day bell rang.
“OK, let’s have a volunteer for the closing prayer,” said teacher Sheldon Whitaker. Every classroom pauses for prayer at the beginning and end of the day.
In Spanish class, students sing LDS hymns in Spanish as a reward for good quiz scores, and study pronouns and vocabulary in Spanish-language copies of the Book of Mormon. A history class was focused entirely on “providential assistance” in American history, specifically during World War II, and in English, students were encouraged to learn Shakespeare to better understand the language of the scriptures.
“When do you guys pray most?” Brent DeGraff asks his history class students. DeGraff, along with his wife, Kolleen, are the founders and owners of Liahona Academy.
“At night,” offers a student.
“That is good,” DeGraff says with a laugh. “Most people pray most when things are going bad. The Lord knows I’m having trouble when I pray more than once or twice a day. The same thing here. Today you are going to read stories of people turning to the Lord.”
He shows the students a copy of the military version of the Book of Mormon and refers students to an eight-page hand-out of real-life examples of World War II soldiers turning to prayer, taken from national and LDS publications.
“It’s not religion here, life here,” he says, showing distance with his hands. “They go together. Unfortunately, we separate them way too much.”
As time goes on, society begins to forget God’s hand in protecting and saving America — “God’s promised land” — from its enemies, he says.
“Is this really God’s promised land?” he asks. “You decide. … You start thinking of these things and you wonder if maybe he still intervenes today. I tell you he does.”
English teacher Tracy Willburn told her students that learning Shakespeare will help them to better read the scriptures and vice-versa.
“Heavenly Father sent us here to learn to write and make good choices,” she said. “That is another reason to read Shakespeare.”
“I have friends who are teachers and they have to be careful about talking about religion because it is something you can’t discuss,” said science teacher Ben Greenfield. “Here we not only can discuss religion but we are encouraged.”
Math teacher Carol Wright said she chose to teach at the private school because the administration is responsive to parents.
“In the Alpine School District there have been complaints about the math program for five years and the parents haven’t been heard,” she said. “Here, they would have been listened to.”
Because of the religious thread in all classes, students are well behaved, even reverent during class, she said. A code of language, dress and behavior is actively enforced.
“Just having an environment where things are upheld changes your ability to teach and be taught,” she said. “In public school there is profanity and things being thrown and disrespect. We are so far from that.”
After using the school’s video curriculum for two years while living in Virginia, Deanna Steed of Lehi said she moved to Utah so her son could attend Liahona.
“A lot of our friends raised their eyebrows, but we wanted him to be immersed in everything here in the social part, and rub shoulders with the caliber of teachers here,” she said.
“I wanted to have schooling that is supportive of our beliefs,” said Leslee Wells of Alpine. “My kids are excited about the scriptures. At first they were concerned because they said it was going to be like church every day, but I have never heard a negative comment since the first day.”
Breta Finlinson of Orem said her children repeatedly asked to switch from public school to Liahona Academy. Finally she took them out of school for a day so they could observe Liahona classes, sure they would let the idea go. Two of them have attended the school for the past five years.
“When I say I was traumatized, I’m not joking,” she said of the moment her children announced they would not go back to public school. She and her husband had not even spoken about changing schools, let alone the $225 per month tuition.
A downside has been loneliness, she said. Her daughter’s friends at Liahona live as far away as Salt Lake City and Santaquin, putting a damper on after-school activities.
Roxanne Thayne of Lehi said she home-schooled her children before enrolling at Liahona. The drive to school every day “isn’t always fun, but on the upside, we get to spend more one-on-one time on the drives,” she said. “You have to make sacrifices.”
Jeff Hunt of Pleasant Grove said he was concerned the school “would be absorbed in religion and it would be a nutty place,” but was impressed that the curriculum “wasn’t the sterilized politically correct history they get in public school. It was real history that included God.”
Brad and Lisa Myler donated land for the school’s new building, which will be finished by August.
“They have to turn away hundreds of kids a year because they don’t have space,” said Lisa Myler. “It’s been such a blessing to our family for our kids to go to school here. My children love to learn. They are excited to go to school, and they complain when there is a break.”
For many students, the seventh and eighth grades “are the most cruel, and personal self-esteem suffers,” said Brad Myler, noting that is when children get teased and bullied. “Liahona Academy has taken that whole thing away. That reason alone is enough to take (students) out of public school.”