Pinellas school district officials sour on new charter for Scientology-affliated Life Force school

Tampa Bay Times/February 29, 2012

Dunedin -- Pinellas County School District officials on Tuesday delivered a blow to a charter school tied to Scientology, recommending the School Board vote against a proposal that could keep the school open through 2016.

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy leaders asked the district last month to amend the embattled school's charter to provide for a fresh start.

But amid concerns that the tax-supported elementary school uses "study technology," a Scientology teaching method criticized as a covert recruiting tool, superintendent John Stewart recommended the School Board reject the charter amendments at its meeting March 6.

Rejection would not close the school or cancel its charter, which was approved in 2008 and expires in June 2013. But it could set the stage for future sanctions and prove disastrous in bankruptcy court, where a judge is considering the school's Chapter 11 reorganization.

Overseen by proponents of Scientology and members of the black supremacist group Nation of Islam, Life Force's focus on "study tech," a methodology devised by Scientology's late founder L. Ron Hubbard, worried parents and former teachers. Their frustrations over school mismanagement and secrecy were reported in Sunday's Tampa Bay Times.

On Tuesday, Stewart released a memo and an appended evaluation that reiterated many of those concerns, criticizing everything from a top-heavy administration reluctant to meet educational standards to a school staff made "unstable" by faculty firings and resignations.

Louis Muhammad, who chairs the school's board of directors, said he did not want to comment. Hanan Islam, whose private company, Art of Management, runs the school, did not return messages late Tuesday.

Run by their own boards of directors, charter schools receive public tax funding based on enrollment. They are monitored by the school district but freed of some requirements of regular public schools, allowing them to offer unconventional curricula.

With nearly all of its 100 students qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, Life Force received extra funding through federal grants. Last year, audits show, the school earned more than $800,000 in public funds, a per-student rate higher than the state and county average for all schools.

Life Force's proposed 209-page amendment is, in effect, a new charter, establishing a new budget, curriculum, leadership structure and name: the SMART Academy.

But Stewart's memo and the staff evaluation suggested the amendment faced insurmountable odds:

• The school's new curriculum would be provided by Bright Sky Learning, a for-profit company founded by Scientologists, and would not meet state standards.

• Its new budget would be based on "unrealistic enrollment projections," and would depend too much on "large donations."

• The amendment-proposed classes would be newly refocused on physical education, art, music and technology, while not budgeting for teachers to cover those subjects.

• The school would claim no responsibility for busing, instead relying on parents to contract with a local bus company.

• Teachers would be "paid substitute wages" and would not be given contracts. Meanwhile, the school's administration would include a management company, a principal, and directors of operations, administrative affairs, academics and public contact.

• Parents who didn't meet the school's requirements for volunteering could find their children expelled — a practice officials said was unheard-of in other Pinellas charters.

District officials said some concerns about the requested amendment stemmed from the school's past issues. The school's proposed punishment system, according to the amendment, would include disciplinary "service projects." In December, Islam defended a school punishment — forcing young boys to scrub a bathroom — as a way to build self-esteem.

Officials also questioned the oversight of the school's board of directors in ensuring the amended charter was upheld. Like Islam, most board members have yet to give their fingerprints for background screenings mandated by the state's Jessica Lunsford Act.

The board has also experienced regular turnover, officials wrote. New board members listed in the amendment proposal include Fatima Talbird, who has taken Scientology courses and been photographed with Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney and Nation of Islam minister Tony Muhammad, and Bahiyyah Sadiki, a Clearwater tutor promoted by a study tech group called Applied Scholastics.

Nowhere in Life Force's proposed amendment do the school's administrators make mention of study tech or Scientology. A student reading list includes 17 notable authors but not Hubbard, whose writings, former teachers said, formed the base of all instruction at Life Force.

Toccara Hobbs, whose daughter has attended Life Force since it opened in 2009, said she was shocked by former teachers' revelations of the school's inner workings detailed in the Times.

She would like to remove her third-grade daughter from the school, but she worries it would disrupt her schooling as FCAT tests loom.

"If I would have known all this was going on, I would have never put her in Life Force," Hobbs said. "You're putting all your trust in these people."

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