This remote territory straddling the line between Utah and Arizona has long been an outlaw community where residents practice polygamy with impunity. Now parents here have removed their children from school en masse at the behest of a 92-year-old religious "prophet" and may cause the public school system to crumble.
Three-quarters of the students in the region's schools did not return to their classrooms this fall, an exodus that has raised questions about how far parents can go in balancing their religious beliefs with the state's mandate to educate children.
"It breaks my heart to feel like some of these students are not getting the education they should get," said Max Tolman, the first-year principal at Phelps Elementary School in Hildale. "We don't get involved with the religious issues here, but it's amazing that one religious leader could influence so many people."
At Tolman's school, only 92 of the 274 students enrolled last year have returned, and the low-slung school building that once teemed with children is now disconcertingly quiet. Some teachers have stayed away, too, forcing the principal to combine grades and teach fourth- and fifth-graders himself. In neighboring Colorado City, just across the state line in Arizona, the high school has 35 students on a campus that last year bustled with 380. All told, about 1,000 children in Hildale and Colorado City have left school.
Parents have told school officials they are home schooling, but authorities in both states say they do not monitor whether the children are being taught.
Both Utah and Arizona require only that a parent sign an affidavit pledging to educate a child at home. Unlike several other states, there is no required curriculum, and children schooled at home are not required to take standardized tests.
"It's preposterous, isn't it?" said Mike File, superintendent of schools for Arizona's Mohave County, which includes three Colorado City schools. "Education choice is awesome, but at what cost?
"We have some folks who come in and can't even complete the form for home schooling. They fill it out with an X or an O. And I'm supposed to feel good about letting those kids go out the door?"
The families are obeying an order from their religious leader, Rulon Jeffs. In July, Jeffs, through a sermon delivered by his son Warren, ordered followers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to cut off contact with outsiders. To his followers, that meant not mixing with children and teachers in public schools.
Church leaders and community members have declined to be interviewed.
Leaders of the Fundamentalist Church were excommunicated from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints nearly a century ago for practicing polygamy. For years, they have issued dire warnings about the "end of days" and the apocalypse.
Scores of apocalyptic predictions have come and gone -- the most recent was for Sept. 15 -- since polygamists established their theocracies in this barren stretch of high desert.
With the departure of the children, the end of days could soon come for this region's public schools, which receive state funding based on attendance.
"It's a situation that defies conciliation," said Steve Laing, Utah's superintendent of public instruction. "It's amazing that a person can use a pulpit in this manner. It's a delicate thing."
The unique history of Hildale and Colorado City binds the towns, which are separated by a single dirt road -- Uzona Avenue -- that delineates the Utah-Arizona border. A sign at the local post office lists Hildale and Colorado City.
The twin towns were settled in 1914 by hundreds of pioneers who defiantly carried on the practice of plural marriage. As polygamy became less acceptable to authorities, even when hidden away in such a remote outpost, the towns became more and more insular. Over the years, as the secular world has encroached, Hildale and Colorado City have dug in and crouched against the red-rock cliffs that serve as this region's spectacular backdrop.
Polygamy is against the law in Arizona and Utah, but it is rarely punished. Ben Bistline, who has written a history of Colorado City, said nearly all of the 10,000 residents of Hildale, Colorado City and the nearby community of Centennial Park practice polygamy.
"The ones that don't, the young boys, will when they get old enough to get their first wife," said Bistline, who was raised in polygamy but counts himself as one of the few who do not follow the practice.
Jeffs, an imposing figure with his mane of swept-back silver hair, is reported to have 16 wives and as many as 90 children. He grew up in this community and owns immense tracts of land in southern Utah; most of the property in Hildale is held in his church's name, and his son Warren is poised to take over as the next church leader.
The Jeffs family runs the church, and Bistline said there is a healthy income from members who are encouraged to tithe. The "prophet" returned to the area from Salt Lake City two years ago, in part to straighten out the church's financial affairs, Bistline said.
The group's temple is by far the region's largest structure. It was here that Warren Jeffs read his father's lengthy missive that warned of the danger of association with anyone outside the church.
Bistline said that Rulon Jeffs' return seemed to drive a wedge between two groups of polygamists in the area. In a series of sermons, Jeffs advised his followers to disassociate from a splinter group of polygamists who follow a different leader.
His July message read, in part: "Today our Prophet is drawing another line of guidance for his people. . . . He is now calling upon his people to let the apostates alone, and let there be a separating of this Priesthood people from associations, business and doings with apostates."
While Jeffs' followers pulled out of the region's four public schools, some members of the splinter group have sent their children to school for the first time this fall, Tolman said.
Even before the summer edict, home schooling was a popular alternative in this area. Local school officials say Jeffs' followers, in particular, object to the teaching of subjects such as science, which the church finds contradictory to its beliefs.
For Tolman, finding himself in the middle of a religious feud has been a constant balancing act. He sighed when describing how he is coping with a school that is suddenly minus two-thirds of its pupils and a staff that has only two returning teachers.
To deal with the situation, Tolman has combined classes: First-, second- and third-graders have the same teacher. Fourth- and fifth-graders work together, as do sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes. Class time is generally spent together, but the grades are separated for some subjects.
The one full-to-bursting age group: 33 kindergarteners who rattle around four classrooms.
"It's challenging, and we are figuring it out as we go," he said.
For now, the schools are funded at last year's enrollment levels. School officials reported the current enrollment last week and that will determine state funding for next year.
Staring out his office window on a recent morning, Tolman said the bottom line is the welfare of the children.
"These people love and care about their children, and they want them to have a good education," he said. "But the problem is what that means. I think we have different definitions of what's good for these kids."