In July 2003, a nonprofit called Applied Scholastics International opened a spanking-new headquarters on 55 acres in Spanish Lake. Among those who attended the festivities were U.S. Congressman William "Lacy" Clay and actors Tom Cruise and Anne Archer. Newspapers from coast to coast published stories heralding the group's move from LA to the great Midwest.
After the initial fanfare, Applied Scholastics quietly went about its business: pitching tutoring services to local groups with after-school programs and looking to ally with prominent urban-education researchers, Washington University's Garrett Duncan among them.
Fast-forward two years to the fall of 2005. Applied Scholastics makes headlines once again, but this time the occasion is no celebration: Two local school districts, St. Louis and Hazelwood, say the group isn't welcome in their classrooms.
As reported in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Creg Williams last month told area principals to quit sending teachers to professional-development workshops at Applied Scholastics. And in early October, Hazelwood School District superintendent Chris Wright penned a letter to the nonprofit's CEO, Bennetta Slaughter, admonishing the organization to stop claiming a "partnership" with Hazelwood.
What's so repugnant about Applied Scholastics?
"We know that some of their learning strategies are specifically referred to in the Scientology doctrine," Wright sums up.
This is by no means the first time Scientologists have been accused of attempting to infiltrate public-school classrooms. In 1997 officials in California fended off a bid to allow Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's teaching materials into classrooms. Just last week came reports that a school district in San Antonio, Texas, was under fire for purchasing textbooks written by Hubbard.
The fuss isn't so much a church-state issue as it is skepticism regarding Scientology itself. Followers of Hubbard, a science-fiction writer who founded the church in 1954, see themselves as immortal spirits hindered by numerous mental blocks, or "engrams." "Clearing" the blocks can lead to spiritual awakening and a happy life, free of addiction. Scientologists eschew psychiatry and traditional counseling in favor of "auditing" sessions in which one church member questions another about painful memories and helps to "clear" him.
Despite the limelight afforded by adherents like Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, some have called Scientology a cult. In a 1984 opinion, a judge in Los Angeles wrote that "[Scientology] is nothing in reality but a vast enterprise to extract the maximum amount of money from its adepts by pseudo-scientific theories." More recently television viewers saw an emotional Cruise decry psychiatry on the Today show and tell Larry King that Hubbard's study methods cured his dyslexia.
Enter Applied Scholastics, which uses texts authored by Hubbard. Though the books don't overtly make the link between the writer and the religion, St. Louis Board of Education member Bill Purdy points out that titles like Learning How to Learn and How to Use a Dictionary prominently feature Hubbard's name on their covers. And each contains a directory of Scientology churches in the U.S. Walk into one of the churches, and a congregant will tell you the books are used in classes there. "Clearly the books are based on L. Ron Hubbard's belief system," says Purdy.
Applied Scholastics' methodology (which Hubbard calls "Study Technology") holds that students have trouble in school because they never learn how to learn. Hubbard's books identify three main barriers: "lack of mass" (a paucity of visual aids and diagrams); "skipped gradient" (failing to allow students to master simple steps in a complex lesson); and the "misunderstood word" (a weak vocabulary).
Chris Wright says Applied Scholastics personnel "aggressively" began trying to partner with her district almost as soon as the group took up residence in Spanish Lake. "They wanted to provide us with materials and training for our teachers," says the Hazelwood superintendent. "They wanted to come into our schools and do tutoring, a number of activities."
In response, Wright asked her staff to look into the program. She says they searched in vain for independent academic research that supports the method. Instead they found critics like David Touretzky, a computer-science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who operates a Web site called www.studytech.org.
"Applied Scholastics is Scientology. They're no different," asserts Touretzky, who has spent a decade probing Scientology and Applied Scholastics and posting his findings on studytech.org along with links to pertinent news stories. He says "learning how to learn" and overcoming the three barriers to learning comprise fundamental Scientology principles.
"Applied Scholastics teaches you nine different methods of 'word clearing,' or looking up words in dictionaries, for example. These same methods are laid out in Scientology scripture," Touretzky points out.
Applied Scholastics spokeswoman Mary Adams dismisses Touretzky as "a little bit loony" and notes that his personal page on Carnegie Mellon's Web site contains instructions for homemade bombs. (The site is filled with information concerning First Amendment issues, another of Touretzky's passions.) "L. Ron Hubbard developed the educational materials and gifted them to Applied Scholastics in 1972. They have nothing whatsoever to do with religion," Adams says. "He happens to be the founder of the Church of Scientology."
"That's exactly where the danger is," counters Judith Cochran, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and director of the E. Desmond Lee Regional Institute of Tutorial Education. "How does a guy that starts a religion know what's needed academically?"
Adds Cochran's UMSL colleague Kathleen Sullivan Brown: "I am aware of research on effective strategies for learning, and this is not one of them."
Adams blames Purdy and public-schools gadfly Peter Downs for thrusting her organization under the media's microscope. Last month, after some St. Louis teachers complained to local union officials about being sent to workshops at Applied Scholastics, Purdy and Downs toured the facility, after which the latter wrote a story that was published in the St. Louis Argus.
In his article, Downs reported that Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education had recently approved Applied Scholastics as a Supplemental Educational Service. This cleared the way for the group to tutor low-income children in underperforming schools statewide, as mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law. The service is funded with federal money.
"The whole point of this tutoring is to get kids back on grade level," Downs argues. "But there's nothing in the Applied Scholastics curriculum designed to do that. It teaches kids what L. Ron Hubbard has to say about the barriers to learning and tells them to go back on their own and pick up what they missed. I think that's a crock."
Responds Adams: "The gentleman has an agenda, and he's using our big name to forward it."
In his Argus article, Downs wrote that Applied Scholastics was "gearing up for a partnership with Hazelwood Public Schools...."
That was news to Chris Wright, who fired off a letter to the nonprofit noting that the school district "has on many occasions declined offers from your organization" and demanding that the group "refrain from any future reference to a 'partnership' with Hazelwood School District."
Downs, who publishes an e-mail newsletter called "St. Louis Schools Watch" and is a regular contributor to the Argus, wrote a follow-up article about Wright's letter, slated for publication October 13.
At the last minute, Argus publisher Eddie Hasan pulled the story and replaced it with a press release supplied by Applied Scholastics.
"I might have given them free marketing," Hasan concedes. "But I'm never one to sit on the sidelines and watch people attack somebody based on their religion." The decision was partly personal, he says, stemming from the "mocking" he suffered 30 years ago when he converted to Islam. Hasan had another beef with Downs' story. "You read Peter's articles, and they make it seem like Scientology is the big bad wolf," says the publisher. "If it is, well, why? I want some facts on the Applied Scholastics program, and is it effective?"
Downs published his story in his newsletter with an "editor's note" rebuking Hasan.
UMSL's Judith Cochran reviewed the Supplemental Educational Service application Applied Scholastics submitted to the state of Missouri. "It's entirely misleading," Cochran says of the document, noting that the program applied under the name "Spanish Lake Academy Tutoring Center/Applied Scholastics." Cochran says the application fails to include sources for the data it presents as evidence of the program's effectiveness. "I can't tell where any of their tests were administered, how long the children were tutored or who did the testing. They've got to document that," she says.
Missouri only requires that tutoring programs describe their "research and effectiveness"; the state does not stipulate that independent observers must weigh in on a program's efficacy -- a step Cochran says is essential.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education stands by its decision. Dee Beck, the department's coordinator of federal programs, says the agency did not review Applied Scholastics' texts before approving the application but has "asked for a set of materials from this particular provider so we can see for ourselves that they are not putting forth any ideology."
According to www.tutorsforkids.org, a Web site funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Arizona and Missouri are the only states that have approved Applied Scholastics to date. Adams says her organization has applications pending in other states.
Meanwhile, Washington University education professor Garrett Duncan says he plans to continue ignoring Applied Scholastics' overtures. Says Duncan: "Their literature is rather dogmatic, and their pursuit of me over the last year has shown that same type of zeal. I just don't feel right about calling them back."