Pinellas charter school reaches out to Scientology for help

St. Petersburg Times/July 30, 2011

Clearwater - Looking for a savior, a North Pinellas charter school that has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy has asked for help from the director of a group affiliated with Scientology.

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, which caters to low-income children from Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood, filed paperwork in federal court July 25 showing it is $250,000 in debt.

The school, which has 106 students, also must find a new home. The school has operated out of the New Beginning Community Church on Sunset Point Road since it opened in 2009, but according to court documents, the school owes the church $25,366.

In April, the Pinellas County School Board put Life Force on notice because of the state of its finances. Maurice Mickens, the school's former chairman and a current board member, said the bankruptcy filing is an attempt to keep the school in the community and ensure that everyone gets paid.

According to the bankruptcy filing, Mickens is owed $80,264.

To help the school recover, Mickens and the other board members have turned to Hanan Islam, executive director of the World Literacy Crusade. The group promotes the use of study techniques developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the late founder of the Church of Scientology.

Islam is from Los Angeles, though she has been staying in Clearwater for about eight months, and is an owner of a local company called Art of Management Inc., described on a website as specializing in management services for speakers, artists and authors.

Islam said Mickens approached her earlier because the school needed help. She said she immediately saw what the problems were and gave Mickens a written report. She said he didn't follow her advice.

Now, she said, "We are coming to reorganize it and save the school. We want to make sure the church is taken care of and staff are paid. The priority is rent, staff and taxes. Our only job is to help save it, turn it around. There are no intentions of taking over the school.

"This is what we do," Islam said. "We set up programs in churches and schools all over the world."

Mickens makes no apologies for reaching out to Islam's group and to Scientology.

"I don't look at a person's religion to determine what they do, but what can they do for me," he said. "We had people who were Christians and they put us in a hole."

Mickens said he is not a Scientologist, but a Baptist church deacon. Scientology can provide "some techniques and stuff for reading that has worked very well," he said.

"I'm the type of person, somebody got a good tool, you use the darn thing," Mickens said. "Sometimes people's prejudices can stop things. They are hard workers and I don't have a problem (with them)."

Islam said three locations are being considered for the school, which is scheduled to open for the new year on Aug. 22. Life Force will be located within a 2-mile radius of its former location, she said, and transportation will be provided to students who need it.

Islam said the students will not be taught about Scientology.

"My organization does not push any religion at all," Islam said. "We are into creating stellar education programs, particularly in the inner city. I don't care what color, what religion, it doesn't matter."

Ninety percent of Life Force's 106 students are on free and reduced lunch, she said. But despite that, more than 70 percent of them improved their reading scores at the school, she said.

Charter schools are public schools funded by tax dollars and chartered by county school districts, but they are operated by their own boards. However, state law requires local school districts to monitor the schools.

Jim Robinson, the Pinellas County school district attorney, said he met with the group taking over management of Life Force. Robinson said their religion was never brought up.

"We found the individuals to be very responsible and we were encouraged by their enthusiasm and good intentions," Robinson said. "We still have our concerns, foremost among them, where their facility will be or if they will have a facility.

"And we eagerly await the opportunity to meet with the bankruptcy court to find out what the essence of the reorganization plan will be," said Robinson, who added that it is unusual for a charter school to file for bankruptcy.

Robinson said the school is still bound by the curriculum that was approved by the School Board and any changes would have to come back before the board for an amendment.

In April, Life Force Arts and Technology Academy fired its principal, Martie Woodie, after she was arrested in Manatee County on a charge of exploitation of the elderly. Authorities said Woodie stole at least $16,000 from a trust designated to pay her 77-year-old adoptive mother's health care expenses, using the money to, among other things, take a cruise.

That same month, Pinellas County school officials sent a stern letter to the head of the school's governing board because the school's financial reports showed its expenses had exceeded budget for three months.

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy opened with the intent of mixing ballet, hip-hop, modern dance, singing, theater and computers with a traditional educational curriculum. The school serves kindergarten through fourth-graders.

The school was founded by Jai Hinson, who in 1991 founded the Life Force Cultural Arts Academy, which has its origins in the Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet.

Hinson said about a year and half ago, she separated from the school and no longer has ties to it. Though they still share a similar name, she said her cultural arts academy has nothing to do with the charter school.

"I was very disappointed," Hinson said of the school's decline. "My 20-year legacy of work, and this was an offshoot. The management was not good. All I can say is that I'm very disappointed."

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