L Is for L. Ron

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

Adds Cochran's UMSL colleague Kathleen Sullivan Brown: "I am aware of research on effective strategies for learning, and this is not one of them."

Adams blames Purdy and public-schools gadfly Peter Downs for thrusting her organization under the media's microscope. Last month, after some St. Louis teachers complained to local union officials about being sent to workshops at Applied Scholastics, Purdy and Downs toured the facility, after which the latter wrote a story that was published in the St. Louis Argus.

In his article, Downs reported that Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had recently approved Applied Scholastics as a Supplemental Educational Service. This cleared the way for the group to tutor low-income children in underperforming schools statewide, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law. The service is funded with federal money.

"The whole point of this tutoring is to get kids back on grade level," Downs argues. "But there's nothing in the Applied Scholastics curriculum designed to do that. It teaches kids what L. Ron Hubbard has to say about the barriers to learning and tells them to go back on their own and pick up what they missed. I think that's a crock."

Responds Adams: "The gentleman has an agenda, and he's using our big name to forward it."

In his Argus article, Downs wrote that Applied Scholastics was "gearing up for a partnership with Hazelwood Public Schools...."

That was news to Chris Wright, who fired off a letter to the nonprofit noting that the school district "has on many occasions declined offers from your organization" and demanding that the group "refrain from any future reference to a 'partnership' with Hazelwood School District."

Downs, who publishes an e-mail newsletter called "St. Louis Schools Watch" and is a regular contributor to the Argus, wrote a follow-up article about Wright's letter, slated for publication October 13.

At the last minute, Argus publisher Eddie Hasan pulled the story and replaced it with a press release supplied by Applied Scholastics.

"I might have given them free marketing," Hasan concedes. "But I'm never one to sit on the sidelines and watch people attack somebody based on their religion." The decision was partly personal, he says, stemming from the "mocking" he suffered 30 years ago when he converted to Islam. Hasan had another beef with Downs' story. "You read Peter's articles, and they make it seem like Scientology is the big bad wolf," says the publisher. "If it is, well, why? I want some facts on the Applied Scholastics program, and is it effective?"

Downs published his story in his newsletter with an "editor's note" rebuking Hasan.

UMSL's Judith Cochran reviewed the Supplemental Educational Service application Applied Scholastics submitted to the state of Missouri. "It's entirely misleading," Cochran says of the document, noting that the program applied under the name "Spanish Lake Academy Tutoring Center/Applied Scholastics." Cochran says the application fails to include sources for the data it presents as evidence of the program's effectiveness. "I can't tell where any of their tests were administered, how long the children were tutored or who did the testing. They've got to document that," she says.

Missouri only requires that tutoring programs describe their "research and effectiveness"; the state does not stipulate that independent observers must weigh in on a program's efficacy -- a step Cochran says is essential.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stands by its decision. Dee Beck, the department's coordinator of federal programs, says the agency did not review Applied Scholastics' texts before approving the application but has "asked for a set of materials from this particular provider so we can see for ourselves that they are not putting forth any ideology."

According to www.tutorsforkids.org, a Web site funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Arizona and Missouri are the only states that have approved Applied Scholastics to date. Adams says her organization has applications pending in other states.

Meanwhile, Washington University education professor Garrett Duncan says he plans to continue ignoring Applied Scholastics' overtures. Says Duncan: "Their literature is rather dogmatic, and their pursuit of me over the last year has shown that same type of zeal. I just don't feel right about calling them back."

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