Wasatch Academy is a surprising little enclave of educational uniqueness in Utah.

It is the oldest continuously operating prep school in the state and attracts students from many countries of the world, despite the fact that many Utahns don't even know it exists, said Headmaster Joseph Loftin."We're one of Utah's best-kept secrets," he said.

That's not surprising. Not everyone would expect to find a two-square-block private boarding school campus tucked away in the bucolic, tree-shaded environs of Mount Pleasant. Many of the academy's buildings are old and steeped in atmosphere and history. The entire campus has been listed on a registry of historic Utah sites, although several modern buildings have been erected in the past two decades.

Relative isolation is both a blessing and a problem, said Loftin, who only recently took over administration school, now in its 114th year. Some parents see the rural setting as an opportunity to have their children learn in a more serene atmosphere than big-city educational institutions offer.

The rural nature of Sanpete Valley can create "a cultural shock for some kids from large cities," Loftin said. "But many of them come to appreciate the slower pace and the opportunity for outdoor activities."

Wasatch has other advantages, including a 6-1 student/teacher ratio and a strong academic program (approximately 85 percent of the graduates continue on to higher education) coupled with a full agenda of extracurricular activities that range from chess to camping and weekend skiing on the Wasatch Front, Loftin said.

"We teach the whole student - looking after their academic, spiritual, physical and moral development," he said. Away from their parents, many of the 9th- to 12th-graders "learn about themselves. They find they can achieve."

Training includes a strong Christian ethic. Students come from a variety of religious backgrounds, but all must take religion classes.

The school's academic program exceeds state requirements. The academy is an accredited member of the National Association of Independent Schools.

Like many small schools in an era of diminishing support and increasing costs, Wasatch is struggling to build its student body and generate funds to maintain its diverse programs, Loftin said.

At the beginning of the academic year this fall, fewer than 100 students were enrolled in the academy. The school is increasing its recruiting effort in hopes of bringing the number up at least to 120, he said. The school has capacity for approximately 185.

In the past, 40-50 percent of the students were from Utah. Now fewer than 10 percent of the students are in-state.

"We would like that to change," Loftin said. The 1988-89 student body is from 16 states and six countries. A half dozen or so local adolescents attend classes as non-residential students.

Until the early 1970s, Wasatch Academy was part of an extensive Presbyterian Church school sytem. When the church withdrew as an official sponsor, funding for the schools became less dependable. Though some contributions continue to come in from church groups, the academy has had to look to other resources, including significant tuition increases. Donations have become more important to the school's financing.

Struggle isn't new to the Wasatch Academy. In fact, it's essentially its story.

The school was founded in 1875 when Mount Pleasant was only beginning to establish itself as Utah's "Queen City." The Black Hawk wars were not far in the past and pioneers were busily eking out an existence - to the detriment of their children's education.

Dr. Duncan J. McMillan, a Presbyterian minister, school teacher and Civil War veteran, was traveling in America's West. He was seeking a climate that would be kinder to his lungs, which were damaged when he rescued four girls from a burning building.

In Utah, he found the dearth of public schools an intriguing challenge and set about founding 39 private grammar schools and four academies. Today, only Wasatch Academy remains as the state's public system has supplanted the private schools.

McMillan acquired the old Liberal Dance Hall in Mount Pleasant and built his own benches for the enrollees who came to class on April 19, 1875. When foreclosure on the dance hall was imminent, the day was saved by an unexpected check for $68 - the entire treasury of the Women's Circle of a church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Another donation came from friends of McMillan whose son had died. The grief-stricken parents couldn't bear to break the child's piggy bank and sent it intact to McMillan, who extracted $3.87 for his cause.

After a fire leveled one of the academy's buildings, a fund-raising campaign got a boost from an unexpected source.

E. Francis Hyde of the Mentholatum Co., Wichita, Kan., offered $5 toward a new building for each student who would learn and recite the entire Sermon on the Mount. As 116 students made the recitation, the building fund grew.

"There's a little bit of magic about the school," Loftin said. "It's always managed to survive. And it's been good for Utah."

Wasatch Academy is important to the economy of Mount Pleasant and Sanpete County, Loftin noted. The $1.5 million annual budget includes more than $600,000 in salaries paid to local people and to the staff. Teachers live on campus and are available to students in off-school hours, he said. Retaining teachers is a problem as single people tend to tire quickly of the rural environs.

Some teachers, however, find the placid, clean atmosphere and small classes a fulfilling opportunity to do what they do best - interact with students on a personal basis.

Volunteers, many of them from the Volunteers in Mission program of the National Presbyterian Church, enlarge program capabilities and provide many of the support services, Loftin said. They serve as dorm parents and substitute teachers and run the student recreation center and bookstore.

One couple came eight years ago from Pennsylvania to volunteer and stayed on as permanent residents of the small Utah town. They continue to donate time and services to the academy.