A new school of thought

St. Petersburg Times, July 18, 1999
By Paul Wilborn

ALACHUA -- The principal is a 50-year-old Ph.D. The teacher has 30 years of experience in the classroom. The lines carved around the eyes and mouths of the five school administrators are silent signatures of years spent in business and the professions.

Most mornings they gather, just after sunrise, in flowing robes of fine cotton and silk, to bang finger cymbals, beat drums and chant their devotion to Krishna.

"Hare Krishna. Hare Rama. Hare Krishna. Hare Rama. Krishna Krishna. Rama Rama. Hare Hare. Hare Hare."

Welcome to New Ramana Reti, 127 acres of rolling hills and ancient oaks, 15 miles north of Gainesville, home to America's first Hare Krishna-run charter school.

The Alachua County School Board narrowly approved the Krishnas' application this month, after initially rejecting the proposal amid considerable controversy in March.

When charter school legislation passed the Florida Legislature three years ago, conservatives predicted it would sprout innovative schools and teaching techniques. Who knew one of the blossoms would be a lotus?

"I didn't expect it," said Cathy Wooley-Brown, who directs the Florida Charter School Resource Center at the University of South Florida. "We've had other religious-based groups, but when I heard this I was surprised."

Wooley-Brown had talked with the organizers as they prepared their application but didn't realize they were Krishnas. She was impressed instead by their knowledge and determination.

"It was a very strong application," she said.

And popular. Ninety-four students have signed up for the new charter school that opens in September. About 75 percent are from the Krishna community. Eventually, though, the Krishnas think their school will appeal to a broad range of parents in this hilly, oak-choked town of 6,000 where the Bible belt is easing out a few notches to make room for a fanny pack full of new age devotees.

Jimmy Swick II has watched it happen.

Born 46 years ago into an Alachua community of farmers and God-fearing country people, Swick now sells real estate in 5-acre chunks to herb-swallowing vegetarians, to middle-aged ex-hippies with baby seats in their Jeep Cherokees, and to Hare Krishnas with shaved heads and disposable incomes.

"The times they are a' changing -- who sang that?" Swick says.

On Main Street, pushed up next to The Deer Stand ("Guns, Pawn, Archery, Ammo") is the Harvest Thyme Cafe, home to Gardenburgers, the Veggielicious tortilla wrap and Mother Nature's Best fruit plate. Out on 441, set amid the signs for Clyde's Tire & Brake, Sudzee Duds launderette, and Countryside TV & Appliance, is one for Alachua Acupuncture and Massage.

Swick and his family spend Sunday mornings at the United Methodist Church, but some of his neighbors meet their maker at the Hare Krishna Temple, at the Temple of the Universe (built by software millionaire Mickey Singer), or in front of Buddhist altars.

At Angel Gardens, a store selling cast concrete angel-wing lawn chairs, health food and herbs, Chris McKee said northern Alachua County is full of people like her -- mid-40s hippies who want to raise their kids in a rural setting.

"There's a karma up here. What else can I say?" she says.

That karma, and the proximity of Gainesville and the University of Florida, also attracted the Hare Krishnas. There has been an active temple in Gainesville since the early 1970s, and in 1977, the group bought the farm on County Road 235 near Alachua.

Since the early 1990s, the farm has attracted Hare Krishnas, known as devotees, from all over the world, who see it as a haven for families and children.

Every morning more than 100 devotees gather barefooted on the black-and-white marble floors to chant to a diety-laden altar. Special occasions draw more than a thousand faithful to the hilltop temple, built of sand-colored block and surrounded by cast clay beams carved to resemble pillars outside an Indian temple.

Jaya Hari came to the farm from Tampa in 1981 and stayed. Today, she's married to a devotee and they have children of their own. After chanting at the 7:20 a.m. gathering, she sits by a three-tiered fountain in a plum-colored sari, a streak of chalky yellow clay running from her forehead down the bridge of her nose, splitting around the jewel set between her eyes.

She doesn't see herself as outside or on the fringes of anything here in Alachua.

"Just what is normal nowadays?" she wonders.

Krishnas like Seth Spellman, a lawyer who joined the movement in 1973, wince at the image of Hare Krishnas as a radical cult whose devotees were famous for pestering travelers in airports. Those images still lead some outsiders to contend the Krishnas remain a dangerous group.

Spellman says the stereotypes were the work of a few zealots. Spellman is an organizer of the Alachua Learning Center -- the Krishnas' charter school -- and he thinks it reflects the new image of the Krishna movement.

"This is a maturing of the Krishna consciousness movement," says Spellman, as the morning chanting goes on in the temple nearby. "We're growing up. We want different things for our children."

To Alachua School Board member Judy Brashear, though, the Krishna charter school is a con game being run on the school system and the state by a cagey group of religious hustlers.

Brashear, who calls the Krishna farm a commune and twice voted against granting the charter, says she thinks the Krishnas want taxpayers to underwrite a new version of the group's existing private school.

"The law says a private school cannot be converted to be a charter," says Brashear. "My opposition is based on the fact that this is a conversion."

Under Florida law, charter schools can be created by private individuals or groups. The state sends the school the same per-student money that would have gone to the local school district. The schools themselves must be free and non-sectarian. Charters can be revoked for mishandling money or violating the state's rules.

The principal will be William Wall, currently a professor at Sante Fe Community College, who says the school will be a hybrid -- offering the value-based education of a religious school and the non-sectarian curriculum of a public school.

"We'll teach values like truthfulness, honesty, attention to duty, respect for all living entities," says Wall, known to fellow Krishnas as Bharatasrestha dasa.

When it opens this fall, Alachua Learning Center will siphon off about half of the 60 students at Vaishnav Academy, the private school that the Krishnas already run.

This year's boys' class at the academy could almost pass for any other school room. The students wear soccer shirts and baggy shorts and jeans. There's a blackboard, a dozen metal and Formica desks crammed with papers and notebooks, a couple of computers, an overhead projector. One wall is decorated with collages the boys made after a field trip to Ginny Springs where they encountered an alligator.

But the names on the collages are Govinda, Braja, Keshava and Subal. These are Hare Krishna children. Unlike their parents, they didn't discover the movement after a life of middle-class comforts and education, they were born into it.

Spellman, one of the board members, says teaching these children well has become a priority for the movement.

Krishna children have done well in public schools -- last year's Sante Fe High School valedictorian was Gaura Allin, a devotee's son. The Krishna children, many from Europe and South America, are stars of local soccer leagues.

But Spellman says Krishnas have struggled when it comes to running private schools for their children.

"We've had some bad reactions from our first attempts," he says. "Some children expressed later that they'd have liked a broader experience."

On the bookshelves at Vaishnav Academy are some attempts at that broader reach. There are textbooks in physical science, algebra and English. Paperback novels by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury and George Orwell. The current conservative touchstone, William Bennett's The Book of Virtues, sits within easy reach.

The boys' teacher, a veteran of public and private school classrooms known only as Sukhada, will move to the Alachua Learning Center.

But Sukhada expects the smaller religious school to thrive. Some parents in the community will still want a religious-based school for their children, especially the younger ones.

The charter school, which will encompass elementary and middle school grades, will avoid religion while mixing reading, writing and arithmetic with practical life skills. There will be small classes with children from different ages taught together.

"We'll teach sewing, cooking, gardening, practical skills, weaving, pottery, along with the standard curriculum," she says. "We want to make education more applicable to their world."

Monitors from the local school district and Wooley-Brown's Charter School Resource Center will keep an eye on the school to see that it doesn't stray from its non-sectarian promises.

Don Lewis oversees charter school operations for the Alachua County school district. He thinks the district and the School Board members will be keeping a close eye on the Krishna school.

"I think the board members are going to be suspect if the Vaishnav Academy closes down," he says.

Even before it was proposed, the mere idea of a state-supported Hare Krishna school was a political flash point in the ongoing debate over school choice initiatives such as charter schools and vouchers.

In the heat of her state Senate race last year, Pinellas Park Rep. Mary Brennan mailed a controversial tract warning that a vote for her Republican opponent, who supported school choice, could lead to Hare Krishnas running their own tax-supported schools.

Brennan lost and was roundly criticized for her attack ad. But her prediction wasn't that far off -- a few hundred miles away, to be exact, where the growing drumbeat for school choice is accompanied by finger cymbals and ancient Indian chants.

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