Group with Scientology ties tutoring kids in Colorado public schools

The Denver Post/August 7, 2012

Six years ago, a group called Applied Scholastics International won state approval to tutor low-income students from struggling public schools.

The group touts its so-called study technology as "the breakthrough that undercuts why people are illiterate."

The materials were developed by "educator and humanitarian" L. Ron Hubbard, the group explained in its application to the Colorado Department of Education.

Hubbard is better known as a science-fiction writer who went on to found the Church of Scientology.

Since 2008, three Colorado public school districts have given more than $150,000 in federal money to Applied Scholastics to provide tutoring to nearly 120 students, a Denver Post review found.

Students from the Denver, Jefferson County and Aurora public school districts received tutoring from the group.

Jeanette Banks, executive director of A Plus Educational Center in Lakewood, which provides tutoring in Colorado under the Applied Scholastics name, said the content is secular.

She said the group has no relationship with the Church of Scientology and does not promote any religious path.

But critics question the material's worth or characterize it as an attempt to indoctrinate children and lend credibility to a fringe religion.

The organization is at risk of being removed from the state's list of approved tutoring providers but not because of any ties to Scientology.

The state's most recent annual review of all providers found that Applied Scholastics failed to be effective in increasing student performance. The group was put on notice that if that happens again, it will no longer be eligible to take part in the program.

Applied Scholastics International says it tutored children through government-backed programs in a dozen states last school year, up from four in 2006.

In response to questions from The Post about the group's connections with Scientology, the state Education Department also will begin monitoring the program to make sure it is following protocol, said Nazanin Mohajeri-Nelson, a department program evaluator.

"The program as it's described in the application does not appear to be religiously driven, but what's actually being implemented is the part we need to investigate," Mohajeri-Nelson said.

Paid with federal funds

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, schools missing certain benchmarks must offer free tutoring to eligible children from providers approved by the state and selected by parents.

Districts use federal Title I money to cover the costs. Religious groups are eligible to participate in Colorado, but all instruction must be "secular, neutral and non-ideological."

Applied Scholastics' 2006 application to the state includes testimonials from public- and private-school officials, proposed reading passages and a cover letter identifying the group's advisory board — including movie star and prominent Scientologist Tom Cruise.

The state approved the group's application to provide math and reading tutoring in 2006, then reapproved the group in 2010.

Mohajeri-Nelson said a committee reviewed the application and concluded that the material met standards and appeared secular.

Theory criticized

In its most recent application, Applied Scholastics proposed working with students in kindergarten through eighth grade individually and in small groups, charging $45 an hour per student — about average for providers, records show.

Student activities include standard approaches — such as flash cards and using dictionaries — and more unusual tactics such as modeling in clay to better visualize subjects.

Hubbard identified three "barriers to study," including a "lack of mass," or the absence of the actual object described by a word. Students as a result tend to feel "squashed, bent, sort of spinny, sort of dead, or bored," Applied Scholastics teaches.

Ben Kirshner, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Education, said Hubbard's theory about barriers to study has no scientific or empirical foundation.

The theories range from common sense to "stranger claims about what happens physiologically when one is confused," said Kirshner, who reviewed Applied Scholastics material at The Post's request.

He also said evidence of student growth provided by the group does not appear to have been compiled by an independent entity or have any record of publication or peer review.

According to its most recent tax forms, St. Louis-based Applied Scholastics International took in about $1.3 million in revenue in 2010 from its education and literacy programs.

The group reported working with 248 public schools — a significant increase over the previous year's 74.

Calls to the organization were not returned.

Banks, of the Denver-area Applied Scholastics center, declined an interview request but agreed to answer questions by e-mail.

She said Applied Scholastics has tutored 118 students since 2006 — local districts reported 116 — and is "delivering the program exactly as it was approved by the state of Colorado."

Banks pointed to Applied Scholastics literature calling Hubbard's approach, developed in the 1960s, "a wholly secular technology for use by any person in any field."

The Church of Scientology and its members "have been extremely assistive" to Applied Scholastics, the group says. Banks, a Scientologist, said three of the group's 13 tutors in Colorado are church members.

"Legitimizing" church

David Touretzky, a Carnegie Mellon University research professor who has written critically of Scientology, describes study technology as covert religious instruction.

He said terms in the tutoring also are found in Scientology, including "misunderstood words." Hubbard taught that failing to grasp the meaning of one word in a passage can completely upend learning, causing students to feel "blank" or "washed out."

"They are setting the stage for kids to be good little compliant Scientologists," Touretzky said. "The whole point is to get to where they can say, 'Look, the state of Colorado is paying us to use Scientology tech.' It's all about legitimizing Hubbard and the church."

Banks said such critics "do not understand the first thing about study technology."

State OKs providers

Compared with other tutoring groups in Colorado, Applied Scholastics is a minor player. More than 8,100 students received tutoring in 2009-10 — and only 25 used Applied Scholastics, records show.

Aurora Public Schools — which has paid Applied Scholastics $81,434 to tutor 61 students since 2008 — was unaware of the group's ties to Scientology, district spokeswoman Paula Hans said.

On-site coordinators monitor all tutoring, she said.

Hans, like officials at the other districts with an Applied Scholastics presence, emphasized that the state, not districts, approves providers.

None of the districts reported any concerns from parents about the program.

Under federal guidelines, states also must measure the effectiveness of tutoring programs and cut off groups found to be failing for two straight years.

For a period, Applied Scholastics did not tutor enough children to make an assessment possible, said Mohajeri-Nelson, the program evaluator.

But the numbers were large enough to conduct a review in 2010-11. It found Applied Scholastics students did not improve in reading or math as much as a comparison group of students.

On July 17, the state notified Applied Scholastics it would be removed from the program if next year's review finds similar results.

The state's additional monitoring of Applied Scholastics will involve interviewing the group, tutors and district officials, Mohajeri-Nelson said.

The organization will need to reapply in December if it wishes to continue to provide tutoring in the program.

Scientologists' community involvement was spotlighted in June at the grand opening of a high-profile new church in downtown Denver.

The church long has been controversial, criticized as a moneymaking scheme that exerts excessive control.

Banks said Applied Scholastics' study technology has a sole purpose: teaching people how to learn.

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