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School's new mission angers Utah parents

Published April 22, 2008 1:25 am

Changes at Woodland Hills harm students, they say; developer says education is main focus
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MURRAY - Salt Lake City pharmacist Kathy Leahy struggled for years to find a school for her son. A child with above average intelligence but with social problems, he was stuck in a pattern of apathy and nonparticipation.

Then she found Woodland Hills, a private school at 5858 S. 900 East for students with Asperger's syndrome, behavioral disorders and other developmental and learning disorders.

''He came home and said, 'Mom, I'm not weird here,' '' she remembers.

Since its founding in 1992 by Dennis Liddell and Pat Murdoch, Woodland Hills stood among the few Utah private schools for special-needs middle school students, and the only such private school for high school students.

Today, however, Leahy and other parents are locked in a bitter disagreement over whether changes made to the school last summer have interrupted its mission to instead pursue Sundance Homes owner Bob Jones' goal of turning Woodland Hills into an athletics-oriented school with plans to build a multiacre, multimillion-dollar athletic facility and campus in Herriman.

Leahy, for one, pulled her son out of the newly christened Utah South Valley Community Private School at Woodland Hills. She took the school to small claims court, where she won the return of $3,700 of $10,000 tuition she had paid. A $6,500 Carson Smith scholarship, money the state provides to enable special-needs students to attend private schools, paid the remainder.

Leahy and other parents in January of last year learned the school would expand under an entrepreneur who wanted to invest in Woodland Hills. "We were assured the environment and mission of the school was going to be the same," she said.

Student enrollment swelled from 75 to 160 students. An array of sports teams took form. So did bullying, Leahy said, as her son fended off taunts from a football player in his algebra class.

"The younger kids were asking the older kids to walk them down the hall, because it was like walking the gauntlet," Leahy said.

Other parents echo her sentiments. Jay Maguri, a Salt Lake City lobbyist, said his son, who has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, remains committed to finishing his senior year despite difficulties including inconsistent schedules and rotating teachers.

Mixing competitive athletics students with timid special education students hasn't worked. "It's like putting Attila the Hun and Gandhi in the same room," he said.

Jones, now president of the school's board of trustees, said the school has not "disavowed" its special-needs kids. He's granted tuition waivers to five students with Asperger's. Test scores for such students are up, he said, and they now interact with other students.

As for bullying, Jones said it's not happening. "They [parents] just wanted to believe those things," he said. "They completely fabricated them."

Jones said he was drawn to the school by his desire to coach football, but insists the school's emphasis is not athletics. Rather, he said, it's a "public school setting with private school ideals." One element of that setting is athletics.

Students at "USC," as Jones dubs it, must maintain a 3.0 grade point average to participate in sports. For a limited time last year, he hosted an open enrollment period, rewarding those confident enough to share his vision with tuition waivers for their entire high school career.

"Our first priority is the education of these children, so that if they're worthy of going on to play college sports, they're also mentally prepared to attend college on an intellectual level," he said.

Lack of membership in the Utah High School Activities Association, for which USC has applied and thrice been turned down due to lack of permits and contracts for planned athletic facilities, prohibits its teams from competing in Utah. That hasn't dented Jones' vision, however. The school's football team recently traveled by bus to Canada to compete in three weeks' worth of games against Canadian teams.

Jones said he has contracts in the works for USC athletes to compete against teams from Mexico, Japan and independent high school associations.

USC's Web site features a full page dedicated to its "athletics mission," complete with a link to the NCAA's "Guide for the College-Bound Student Athlete," but makes no mention of programs for students with special learning needs. Jones said the school's Web site will soon make mention of its special-needs programs. "We'll get that fixed," he said.

Admissions Director Liddell said the school grants 80 percent of its tuition waivers to students with athletic aspirations, and that 35 percent of the school's new students "easily fit" into the school's original mission because many have learning disabilities.

According to the Utah State Office of Education, the school is the state's third-largest recipient of Carson Smith scholarships, having received nearly $169,000 in Carson Smith funds last school year and $160,477 this year. Murdoch, the school's chief financial officer, said those funds make up 15 percent of the school's revenue.

J.R. Green, whose son has Asperger's syndrome, said she has no problem with how the school has changed, despite rough patches at first. Her child is thriving, she said.

"There were kids who couldn't handle seeing new faces, but it's not because of the school, it's because of them," said Green, who owns a Salt Lake City mortgage company. "We've already paid our tuition for next year. That's how sure we are."

Downy Doxey-Marshall, a Salt Lake City artist, is less sure of her son's future at the school. She discovered last fall that her 14-year-old son, who has Asperger's, had fallen so far behind that she hired a tutor. "We just kind of rode this year out, and it's hard . . . I can't even think of a place for him to go next year."

"The sad thing is that there is no other school to put these kids," said Blaze Wharton, a Salt Lake City lobbyist.

His 16-year-old son attended the school for a year before he and his wife pulled him out. He said his son often sat on the floor for classes, or was forced out of his desk by football players so they could sit there. "If someone wants to start a football school, that's fine. But to come in here and turn these kids' lives upside-down like they did is just a sin," he said.

Murdoch said the school is three weeks away from closing a deal on donated land in Herriman for the new campus. The old days of Woodland Hills, when students with special needs alone got special attention, are gone, she said. Neither she nor Liddell believe the school has changed direction. Furthermore, they had long planned to expand the school.

Woodland Hills wasn't cost-effective, and students' parents did not help them raise money, she said. "We should have charged at least double the tuition, and they wouldn't have paid it."

Changes to the school are a grave loss, said Sam Goldstein, a psychologist at Salt Lake City's Neurology, Learning and Behavior Center who has referred people to Woodland Hills for 10 years. "It really is the only significant institution outside of public schools for children with higher functioning autism," he said. "Up until this year, I never had a failure story there."

Parents such as Maguri said it no longer matters if the school realizes its Herriman dreams. Unless USC returns to its original mission, he and others aren't interested.

"The doors may be open, but that school closed in September," he said.

* Classroom capacity for 1,260 students

* A 15,000-seat football stadium

* Track that will double as a field for soccer and lacrosse

* Basketball arena

* Swimming facility and gymnasium

* Dormitories housing 300 international students

* Underground parking

The school plans to charge tuition of $14,000, beginning with the 2008-09 school year.






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