Villa Gesu Will House Teachers Of Group With Scientology Link

Applied Scholastics Plans A Community Center As Well, Hopes To Open Next Fall

St. Louis Post - Dispatch/March 21, 2002

A nonprofit organization promoting the teaching methods of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, is moving its world headquarters to Villa Gesu, a former retirement home for Catholic nuns along Riverview Drive north of Interstate 270.

Applied Scholastics International bought the complex from the School Sisters of Notre Dame in October for $2.9 million. Until then and for the previous 70 years, the 55 acres of brick buildings and rolling hills overlooking the Mississippi River had been home to infirm and elderly sisters who needed regular nursing care.

The last of the sisters moved out at the end of the year. Now a caretaker watches the property while Applied Scholastics completes plans to convert the grounds into a teachers' training school and community center, which it hopes will draw educators from across the country as well as teachers and students from the St. Louis area.

Bennetta Slaughter, chief executive of the organization, says she expects the facility to be up and running in the fall, although no date has been set.

"We don't even have design plans finished, frankly," she said. "We have a bit of a runway before we'll be there."

Applied Scholastics was founded in 1971 by a group of educators inspired by Hubbard's ideas for overcoming barriers to study; it became a legal nonprofit corporation in 1972. According to Slaughter, it trained more than 10,000 teachers last year in the techniques it calls Study Technology, and over its 30-year life it has taught millions of students to read in places ranging from China and South Africa to cities in the United States.

In a nutshell, Study Technology asserts that only three things prevent students from being able to concentrate on their studies. Using Hubbard's terminology, they are a lack of mass (that is, of the physical presence or a representation of the thing they're trying to study), too steep a learning gradient (meaning students are asked to master a logical step in a subject before they've fully mastered the steps below it) and misunderstood words.

Hubbard and Applied Scholastics developed specific methods for overcoming these barriers. For instance, when students lose concentration while reading, they're encouraged to look up or clear words they didn't understand, until they're able to explain and answer questions about not only all the words in their reading passage but in the definitions they've read as well.

Past controversy

Applied Scholastics describes itself as a secular organization, but the extent of its relationship to Hubbard's religion, Scientology, has been a matter of some dispute in its current home, Los Angeles.

Controversy arose there in 1997 when teachers who had been using Applied Scholastics books applied to have them placed on the state Department of Education's list of approved classroom materials so schools would be allowed to buy them with public money as supplements to the state's shorter list of official textbooks. At the same time, a special education teacher in the Los Angeles area, Linda Smith, a Scientologist, proposed to found a charter school based on Applied Scholastics methods.

In both cases, educators, public officials and editorialists questioned whether this amounted to introducing religion into public schools. They debated the issue extensively within education circles and in publications such as Education Week and the Los Angeles Times.

Critics cited similarities between Study Technology and concepts central to Scientology. Robert Vaughn Young, a former Scientology spokesman who after 1989 began to speak out against the church, said that secular offshoots of Hubbard's research such as Applied Scholastics were mere front groups. "They are set up to get Scientology into areas where it could never go as a religion," he was quoted as saying.

The Times editorialized against the charter school.

Many educators who had used Study Technology said Hubbard's methods were effective classroom tools with no religious content, and J. Gordon Melton, a University of California religion scholar and author of the Encyclopedia of American Religion, reviewed Applied Scholastics' textbooks and judged them "purely secular."

In the end, a 20-member textbook-review committee agreed. "There's no religion mentioned in those books," a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Education said when the books were approved. "They don't say anything about Scientology."

The charter school proposal did not resolve itself so clearly, and ultimately Smith withdrew her application. The Los Angeles Times education reporter who covered the story in 1997, Duke Helfand, says that this was where the controversy ended.

Asked about the relationship between the Church of Scientology and Applied Scholastics, Slaughter says there is none.

"Obviously they've been very kind to the organization in terms of support," she said. "But we get our employees from the same place every secular corporation does. We advertise in the newspaper."

Applied Scholastics is planning to adapt the Villa Gesu complex and over time to add to it.

"The sisters took incredible care of it," Slaughter said. "It has some absolutely beautiful woodwork."

Because the organization's Los Angeles center will remain open with much of its current staff, the St. Louis headquarters will hire most of its employees locally. Teachers from throughout the country will come to the St. Louis center for short- and long-term courses, and although some will be able to stay in dormitories on the campus, most will stay in hotels.

Slaughter suggested several ways in which the center might involve interested St. Louisans.

"For sure, a community center," she said. "For sure, we will be having regular open houses. Ultimately I would like to have some sports here."

Sister Joan DiProspere, who was administrator of Villa Gesu during its final days as a nursing home, says she and the School Sisters are happy with the new owners so far. The sisters are using money from the sale for the renovation of their motherhouse in Lemay and for charitable works. Over the next 18 months, they'll be working with Applied Scholastics and the Hubbard organization's real- estate arm, Better Living Properties, to remove the remains of sisters who were buried on the property to another Catholic cemetery in the area.

She says that although the sisters didn't look exclusively for a buyer who would maintain the integrity of the Villa Gesu grounds or use them for nonprofit work, they're glad they found one.

"We're happy that this group is renovating the buildings and trying to maintain them as they are now," she said. "We wouldn't want it, you know, to be used for any purpose that's contrary to our values."

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