L Is for L. Ron

The state approves a tutoring program linked to Scientology, and everybody cries foul

In July 2003, a nonprofit called Applied Scholastics International opened a spanking-new headquarters on 55 acres in Spanish Lake. Among those who attended the festivities were U.S. Congressman William "Lacy" Clay and actors Tom Cruise and Anne Archer. Newspapers from coast to coast published stories heralding the group's move from LA to the great Midwest.

After the initial fanfare, Applied Scholastics quietly went about its business: pitching tutoring services to local groups with after-school programs and looking to ally with prominent urban-education researchers, Washington University's Garrett Duncan among them.

Fast-forward two years to the fall of 2005. Applied Scholastics makes headlines once again, but this time the occasion is no celebration: Two local school districts, St. Louis and Hazelwood, say the group isn't welcome in their classrooms.

As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Creg Williams last month told area principals to quit sending teachers to professional-development workshops at Applied Scholastics. And in early October, Hazelwood School District superintendent Chris Wright penned a letter to the nonprofit's CEO, Bennetta Slaughter, admonishing the organization to stop claiming a "partnership" with Hazelwood.

What's so repugnant about Applied Scholastics?

"We know that some of their learning strategies are specifically referred to in the Scientology doctrine," Wright sums up.

This is by no means the first time Scientologists have been accused of attempting to infiltrate public-school classrooms. In 1997 officials in California fended off a bid to allow Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's teaching materials into classrooms. Just last week came reports that a school district in San Antonio, Texas, was under fire for purchasing textbooks written by Hubbard.

The fuss isn't so much a church-state issue as it is skepticism regarding Scientology itself. Followers of Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who founded the church in 1954, see themselves as immortal spirits hindered by numerous mental blocks, or "engrams." "Clearing" the blocks can lead to spiritual awakening and a happy life, free of addiction. Scientologists eschew psychiatry and traditional counseling in favor of "auditing" sessions in which one church member questions another about painful memories and helps to "clear" him.

Despite the limelight afforded by adherents like Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, some have called Scientology a cult. In a 1984 opinion, a judge in Los Angeles wrote that "[Scientology] is nothing in reality but a vast enterprise to extract the maximum amount of money from its adepts by pseudo-scientific theories." More recently television viewers saw an emotional Cruise decry psychiatry on the Todayshow and tell Larry King that Hubbard's study methods cured his dyslexia.

Enter Applied Scholastics, which uses texts authored by Hubbard. Though the books don't overtly make the link between the writer and the religion, St. Louis Board of Education member Bill Purdy points out that titles like Learning How to Learn and How to Use a Dictionary prominently feature Hubbard's name on their covers. And each contains a directory of Scientology churches in the U.S. Walk into one of the churches, and a congregant will tell you the books are used in classes there. "Clearly the books are based on L. Ron Hubbard's belief system," says Purdy.

Applied Scholastics' methodology (which Hubbard calls "Study Technology") holds that students have trouble in school because they never learn how to learn. Hubbard's books identify three main barriers: "lack of mass" (a paucity of visual aids and diagrams); "skipped gradient" (failing to allow students to master simple steps in a complex lesson); and the "misunderstood word" (a weak vocabulary).

Chris Wright says Applied Scholastics personnel "aggressively" began trying to partner with her district almost as soon as the group took up residence in Spanish Lake. "They wanted to provide us with materials and training for our teachers," says the Hazelwood superintendent. "They wanted to come into our schools and do tutoring, a number of activities."

In response, Wright asked her staff to look into the program. She says they searched in vain for independent academic research that supports the method. Instead they found critics like David Touretzky, a computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who operates a Web site called www.studytech.org.

"Applied Scholastics is Scientology. They're no different," asserts Touretzky, who has spent a decade probing Scientology and Applied Scholastics and posting his findings on studytech.org along with links to pertinent news stories. He says "learning how to learn" and overcoming the three barriers to learning comprise fundamental Scientology principles.

"Applied Scholastics teaches you nine different methods of 'word clearing,' or looking up words in dictionaries, for example. These same methods are laid out in Scientology scripture," Touretzky points out.

Applied Scholastics spokeswoman Mary Adams dismisses Touretzky as "a little bit loony" and notes that his personal page on Carnegie Mellon's Web site contains instructions for homemade bombs. (The site is filled with information concerning First Amendment issues, another of Touretzky's passions.) "L. Ron Hubbard developed the educational materials and gifted them to Applied Scholastics in 1972. They have nothing whatsoever to do with religion," Adams says. "He happens to be the founder of the Church of Scientology."

"That's exactly where the danger is," counters Judith Cochran, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and director of the E. Desmond Lee Regional Institute of Tutorial Education. "How does a guy that starts a religion know what's needed academically?"

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