New Village leases site from school district

Home-school program was begun by Hollywood pair

Ventura County Star/July 1, 2008

A local school district has leased one of its campuses to a private school founded by a Hollywood power couple.

The New Village Academy, a home-school program established by actor Will Smith and his wife, actress-singer Jada Pinkett Smith, will move this fall to the former Calabasas site of Indian Hills High School in the Las Virgenes Unified School District.

Students from the alternative high school will be moved to Agoura High School but operate as a separate program within the larger campus, said Las Virgenes Superintendent Don Zimring.

The opening of New Village Academy on Las Virgenes Road has already made the tabloids, sparking rumors that the prekindergarten-through-sixth-grade private school will infuse Scientology teachings through its curriculum.

The academy is scheduled to open its doors to students on Sept. 3.

Will Smith, who has said he is Christian, has studied Scientology and other faiths. His close relationships with Scientologist celebrities, including Tom Cruise, have fueled the rumors.

The academy's Web site, however, does not indicate any religious affiliation, saying the school offers "a mix of traditional and progressive teaching methodologies."

"It's a secular school, and we want to make that very clear," said Will Smith's publicist, Heidi Schaeffer. "It is not a religious school in any way."

Jacqueline Olivier, who heads the school, was not available for comment.

Student fees for the 2008-09 school year at New Village range from $5,500 for pre-K students for two days a week to $12,500 for grades three to six.

According to its Web site, students receive an individualized learning program in core curriculum areas that are tailored to their strengths. Leadership development and a focus on arts and technology, including a film festival, are among the programs offered.

Students also get their own laptops and start taking computer classes in pre-K.

Zimring said the school signed a five-year lease that allows it to opt out after three years. The lease is with the New Village Academy, not the Smiths, he said.

"The district will net just under $1 million in three years between the lease payment and savings in utility and overhead, because they will be doing the maintenance," Zimring said. "It's helped us in reducing cuts we were going to have to make this year and in the future. I think this is an example of how districts have to be creative and aggressive in terms of maximizing and protecting resources until the state can meet its obligation to properly fund its schools."

Zimring said the campus was not being used efficiently. Indian Hills High had about 50 students in classes per day but had space for about 200.

Maintenance crews have begun clearing the campus, and the private academy will receive the keys today, said Karen Kimmel, the district's chief business official.

The move for Indian Hills students to a larger campus will have numerous benefits, Kimmel said.

"Having the students on a comprehensive school site will give them the opportunity to take more R.O.P. (Regional Occupation Program) or elective classes," Kimmel said.

Although there are no plans to work with the new private academy, Zimring said, the district is always willing to consider collaborations with tenants or other organizations.

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