Like many modern celebrity power couples, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith are not satisfied with just being actors.
The couple, who met on the set of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" in 1995, have had a lot of different roles over the years, most recently founding the New Village Leadership Academy (NVLA), a private elementary school in Calabasas, Calif., which opened its doors this week for the start of the 2009-10 school year.
But as Oprah Winfrey famously discovered when she started The Leadership Academy School for Girls, for celebrities, getting involved in an educational venture can be a road fraught with controversy.
Coupled with the long-time "secretly Scientologist" rumors that have surrounded the Smiths, the school's opening has attracted curiosity.
While they're close friends with actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, arguably the world's most famous Scientology couple, Smith has said that he is a not a member of the church.
"I've talked to Tom about it. [There's] lots of incredible, wonderful concepts [but my wife] Jada and I don't necessarily believe in organized religion. I was raised in a Baptist household, and my grandmother would get up out of her casket [if I became a Scientologist]," Smith told the World Entertainment News Network, a news wire, in 2006.
Also creating questions are reports that tax returns for 2008 from the Smith's charitable foundation show that the couple gave a combined $122,500 in donations to groups affiliated with the Church of Scientology. The Smiths reportedly donated a total of $1.3 million to a variety of religious, civic and arts groups that year. Smith's biggest single contribution was to Yesha Ministries of Philadelphia. He gave the Christian-based organization run by the Rev. James Robinson $250,000. Another $200,000 went to a Christian ministry in Los Angeles called "Living Waters." The foundation also donated to a Los Angeles mosque, as well as the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Center and other religious groups. When asked about the donations, Will Smith's publicist, Pat Kinsley, told ABC News.com that her client doesn't comment on his philanthropic work.
In an interview with Ebony magazine earlier this year, Pinkett-Smith said that the NVLA was not tied to Scientology: "All I can say is it is not a Scientology school," she told the magazine. "Now, If you don't trust me, and you are questioning my integrity, that's a whole different matter. That is straight evil to think that I would bring families into that educational institution and then try to get them to convert into some religion."
Despite such statements, skeptics continue to raise questions about whether the Smiths have ties to Scientology, especially when it comes to the NVLA.
L. Ron Hubbard Teachings
The suspicions stem largely from the NVLA's use of Study Technology, a teaching methodology developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.
It operates under the assumption that there are three "barriers" to learning that children must identify and overcome.
Critics claim Study Technology is repackaged Scientology. One professor who has closely followed Scientology suggested the "three barriers" technique is used as a means of familiarizing children with some of the vocabulary often used in Scientology teachings, and several educators told ABCNews.com that the "three barriers" philosophy is a fundamentally flawed teaching tool.
But proponents of the method like the Smiths and Applied Scholastics, the organization founded in 1972 to make Study Tech broadly available, say it's an effective, nonreligious teaching technique.
"Study Technology is a secular methodology intended to help students better understand what is being studied and apply it to real life," Pinkett-Smith wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com forwarded through her publicist. "NVLA integrates this methodology as a tool in instructional design by providing teachers the framework to design lessons and curriculum."
In a March interview with National Public Radio, Pinkett-Smith spoke about the school's alleged religious ties.
"I definitely want to make it very clear to everybody that the educational institution that we have, the school that Will and I have, is not a Scientology school ... it is not a desire of ours to educate children with Scientology, that is not what Will and I want to do. And our school is not, and I repeat, not a Scientology school."
The most ardent critic of Study Technology says he doesn't buy all the denials. Dave S. Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, created a Web site that dissects Study Tech and asserts that it is the Scientology religion disguised as education.
Touretzky said he became focused on Scientology after the group threatened to sue Carnegie Mellon and himself after he posted a secret document revealing what he called the organization's "creation myth."
"I can't say it [the school] is a Scientology church," he told ABCNews.com. "What they seem to have is some sort of a hybrid. Scientology repackaged for the Hollywood crowd. It's hitting all the politically correct elements ... but snuck in there is this Scientology stuff."
A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, Karin Pouw, would not comment on whether there was a relationship between Scientology and the NVLA. She referred all questions back to the school.
Other educators worry less about Study Technology's ties to Scientology and more about its overall effectiveness.
"I look at the Study Tech ideas and it doesn't seem sound educationally," said Jim McManus, executive director of the California Association of Independent Schools. He spent 14 years as an education consultant for independent schools around the country and says he has no personal animosity toward Scientology.
Dan Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who has a background as a cognitive scientist and wrote the book "Why Don't Students Like School," has similar doubts about Study Technology's merits and says it is based on flawed theories.
"It's perfectly possible that the methodology is based on ridiculous principles and that something effective is happening in the classroom, but ridiculous principles certainly lowers that possibility," Willingham said.
The New Village Leadership Academy
Located in the city of Calabasas, just outside of Los Angeles, the New Village Leadership Academy is nestled alongside a main road and surrounded by palm trees and housing developments.
The NVLA opened its doors Sept. 3, 2008, after the Smiths paid nearly $1 million to lease the Indian Hills High School campus in the Las Virgines Unified School District for three years.
Like many private schools in L.A., NVLA students pay annual tuitions of up to $12,500. In return, says its Web site, students get "a mix of traditional and progressive teaching methodologies." Students take classes in yoga, robotics, etiquette, Spanish and karate, and are fed organic, non-sugary foods.
Two of the school's fewer than 100 students are the Smith's previously home-schooled children -- Jaden,10, and Willow, 8.
The NVLA's Web site calls the school "an optimum learning environment -- an ideal model to be shared with all people of the world."
Not everyone agrees.
Project Chanology, an Internet-based anti-Scientology group, protested the school's opening, calling the private academy a "front" for the Church of Scientology and picketed on the sidewalk in front of the school, carrying signs with messages reading, "Study Tech exploits children for profit."
While no one from the group responded to e-mails from ABCNews.com, a press release sent Sept. 8, 2008, said their primary concern is that all schools using Study Tech must pay licensing fees to the Church of Scientology: "This revenue stream is one of the many sources of income which the Church of Scientology uses for such tactics as invoking frivolous lawsuits and hiring private investigators to intimidate critics."
The release went on to say that Smith met with the organization during the protests and said he was "not a Scientologist," but was "unable to definitively say that NVLA is making no payments to Scientology." He then explained "he does not wish to pay a fee to anyone because of his desire to maintain complete control over the teaching methods used at NVLA, an option not typically offered to licensees of Scientology Technology," according to the release.
When asked if NVLA pays a licensing fee for Study Tech to the Church of Scientology, Will Smith's publicist, Pat Kingsley, replied, "no," in an e-mail to ABCNews.com
The Church of Scientology believes Project Chanology has ties to an organization called Anonymous, a group that organizes mostly online protests and has a longstanding opposition to Scientology. The church released a statement earlier in 2008 in anticipation of a Project Chanology protest, alleging that the group had targeted Scientology based on "religious bigotry."
"As to our knowledge of the organizers of the event, they are cyberterrorists who hide their identities behind masks and computer anonymity," read the statement, which was posted on the St. Petersburg Times Web site. "'Anonymous'" is perpetrating religious hate crimes against churches of Scientology and individual Scientologists for no reason other than religious bigotry."
History of Scientology
Scientology dates back to the 1950s, when it was created by Hubbard, a science fiction writer. Hubbard believed people were spiritual beings, or Thetans, whose minds stored mental images beyond a person's control. Through spiritual counseling called "auditing," Hubbard taught that a person could solve personal problems by locating these images and addressing them.
Since its founding, Scientology has received its fair share of media criticism and has come under fire for lambasting psychiatry. One of the most memorable examples was Cruise's chastising of actress Brooke Shields for using anti-depressants to treat postpartum depression. Cruise later apologized to Shields for being critical.
Citing the controversial aspects of Scientology as troubling, critics have been quick to point out that the NVLA school employs people who have taken Scientology courses.
In July, Jacqueline Olivier was removed from her position as head of the pre-kindergarten through grade six school and replaced by Piano Foster, who completed a Scientology basic study manual course at the Scientology Celebrity Center in 2005, according to TruthAboutScientology.com, a database run by Kristi Wachter that tracks Scientology members.
Olivier refused to comment on the removal, saying, "As a former head of the school, it's just not one of those things you do. You keep it professional."
When asked by ABCNews.com whether she didn't want to be interviewed because she had signed a confidentiality agreement, Olivier responded, "Yes and no." She then declined to discuss her religious affiliations.
While the Smiths and their publicists chose not to comment on the reason behind Olivier's firing, a rep for the Smiths told the New York Post's Page Six, "Jacquie is no longer at the school for reasons entirely unrelated to curriculum." The Smith's spokeswoman also described Foster as a Catholic, not a Scientologist.
In June 2008, Olivier told the Los Angeles Times, "We are a secular school, and just like all nonreligious independent schools, faculty and staff do not promote their own religions at school or pass on the beliefs of their particular faith to children." She also said the school would use many philosophies, including Montessori, Bruner and Gardner.
NVLA Faculty's Scientology Ties
Wachter, who started the TruthAboutScientology.com Web site to gauge whether the number of Scientologists was growing, says she gets her data from three Scientology magazines -- Freewinds, Celebrity and Auditor, which Wachter collects from former Scientology members. All three publish Scientology course completion data.
According to Wachter's Web site, the NVLA's artistic director, Sisu Raiken, and director of learning, Tasia Jones, have also taken Scientology courses. Wachter says Raiken enrolled in 16 courses and Jones completed six between 2000 and 2006.
Raiken and Jones also appear to host Web sites through the Church of Scientology. The banners on these sites read: "I am a Scientologist, Support Religious Tolerance."
Raiken's page says: "I have studied many courses in Scientology over the past 16 years, done the Purification Rundown to rid my body of toxins and drugs, and also been involved in many of the social outreach programs of Scientology, mainly getting Mr. Hubbard's literacy program known and put into use."
Jones' site says: "I am currently teaching in a small private school" and included a link to the Applied Scholastics Web site.
The Scientology Celebrity Center in Hollywood where Foster, Raiken and Jones reportedly took courses said it was not their policy to reveal personal information, and Raiken and Jones did not respond to phone calls asking for comment.
What Is Study Technology?
By far, the most controversial aspect of the NVLA is its use of the Study Technology teaching methodology.
"People tend to think Study Technology is a subject, but it is really just the way the subject is taught. They then come to the conclusion that we are teaching Scientology when actually a methodology doesn't have anything to do with content," Olivier told the Los Angeles Times.
The three barriers to learning are outlined in five textbooks for kids: Basic Study Manual, Study Skills for Life, Learning How to Learn, How to Use a Dictionary and Grammar and Communication for Children.
The first barrier is called a "lack of mass," which means students need to gain hands-on experience to understand a concept. "Lacking the object associated with a word can inhibit all understanding," explains the Applied Scholastics Web site.
The second barrier is a concept called "too steep a gradient," requiring that students master a subject matter before moving on to more advanced concepts.
The third is called "misunderstood words," in which students are taught to go back to look up words in a dictionary if they do not understand a concept. "Stupidity is the effect of misunderstood words," according to ScientologyHandbook.org.
The process of looking up misunderstood words is called "word clearing," a six-step procedure that begins with looking up the word in a dictionary and using each of its definitions in several example sentences.
The three barriers to learning are accompanied by physiological responses, according to Study Technology. A student who has skipped a gradient may feel a sort of confusion or a feeling of reeling, such as moving or swaying like you might fall, according to the Applied Scholastics Web site. The books Learning How to Learn and the Basic Study Manual teach that misunderstood words cause symptoms like feeling blank, tired, worried, upset, "like you are not there", or suffering "a sort of nervous hysteria."
Touretzky warned that by teaching kids words like "mass," "clear" and "gradients" that are scattered throughout Church of Scientology literature, the implementation of Study Tech is a way of slipping in Scientology through the back door.
"Study Tech is one of several paths the church pursues to insinuate Scientology into civilized society," he said.
Louisiana Students Use Study Tech
According to the Applied Scholastics Web site, Study Technology has reached 28 million children at 650 centers and schools in more than 65 countries.
Eight of those students attended Prescott Middle School in Baton Rouge, La., During the 2005-2006 school year, Study Tech was used to "salvage a group of 8th grade students, who might not otherwise be qualified to enter high school at the end of the school year," according to the Web site.
All eight passed the Louisiana Education Assessment Program standardized exam and entered 9th grade, according to Diola Bagayoko, a professor of physics at Southern University who partnered with Prescott to develop the school's curriculum, which included Study Tech.
He said the use of Study Tech was a last ditch effort before Prescott was taken over for failing to perform. He said he thoroughly investigated Study Tech before it was implemented and was pleased with the results.
He told ABCNews.com that the methodology is "very effective" and based on sound principles.
Bagayoko, who is not a Scientologist, said Scientology was never mentioned during the two years it was administered at Prescott. "There was not a single occurrence of Scientology ever being pushed. I'm emphatic about it." He said the kids didn't even know who L. Ron Hubbard was.
He admitted, however, that the program ended after two years because of negative media attention focused on the ties between Study Tech and Scientology.
"I should note that most teachers belong to a religion, and most textbooks and educational policies are developed by individuals who belong to a religion," Bagayoko said.
Study Technology as a Teaching Tool
While the educators ABCNews.com reached were not familiar with the ties between Study Technology and Scientology, they believe the methodology's barrier theories are flawed.
"Lack of mass doesn't make very much sense at all," said Willingham. "It seems to imply it's almost impossible to learn anything by reading or by listening, when obviously that's most of what we do."
He added that the data on "manipulables" is much more mixed than people think. "People think kids need to have concrete objects to manipulate. It's more complicated than that. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it hinders learning to have concrete physical objects."
McManus takes issue with the second barrier -- too steep a gradient. "The whole thing with gradients suggests that there is only one sequential pattern that any kid can use to learn something," he said. "Some kids will move from point G to point M, then get to Z. Some will skip the whole notion that there is only one sequence of thinking. Almost anyone that has spent any time in the classroom knows it just doesn't ring true."
Stephen A. Kent, a professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Alberta who has spoken out against Scientology in the past, finds flaws with the way Study Technology handles learning disabilities.
"Scientology believes that these three techniques can overcome students' learning problems. The program excludes, however, any appreciation of medical or biochemical issues within children which may cause or contribute to learning disabilities."
Kent said Scientologists believe these techniques can overcome dyslexia, for instance, but don't advocate kids taking Ritalin and other learning disability drugs for other conditions.
Applied Scholastics did not respond to an ABCNews.com request for comment, but the organization's Web site features several stories championing children learning without the use of drugs.
The Web site offered other claims about the technique's effectiveness:
"In Los Angeles, Calif., students at a school which uses Study Technology throughout its curriculum regularly score 30 percent above the national average on pre-college aptitude tests," according to the Applied Scholastic Web site. "Their 4th grade students consistently score to more grade levels above the norm in reading, math and language on standardized achievement tests."
When asked for specific information about successes from the use of Study Technology, a spokesperson wrote in an e-mail that questions could be answered on the Web site.
Willingham says he is a man who appreciates data. "Unless I'm missing something, there is almost no info here [on the Web site] at all to tell you how these studies were actually done. Those are the details that actually matter."
On his Web site, Touretzky writes that Study Tech's promoters are "remarkably vague about its results. Applied Scholastics and its related organizations have publicized some claimed successes, but have provided no specifics, corroboration or even details of where the results were obtained."
He believes schools that use Study Tech are trying to putting a positive face on L. Ron Hubbard's teachings.
ABCNews.com was unable to reach students at NVLA, or their parents.
"I definitely want to make it very clear to everybody that the educational institution that we have, the school that Will and I have, is not a Scientology school," Pinkett-Smith told NPR. "I know there's been ... a lot of buzz around that idea and that it is not my desire to ... teach Scientology at all.
"I definitely respect and understand people's curiosity, you know, and well, people, they have to trust me when I speak on my truth. That's really the bottom line."