Although created by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, a study skills class at Prescott Middle School has impressed initially skeptical local educators who say they see no evidence of religious instruction, but do see profound changes in the children who participate.
"The kids have benefited from the interaction with the trained tutors in positive ways," said Bob Stockwell, chief academic officer for the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.
"I'm all for anything that gives these kids success, and these kids are experiencing success," said Roxson Welch, a highly regarded former teacher and now an adviser to Mayor-President Kip Holden.
A May 20 story in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times raised questions about the possible religious content and the academic value of the studies skills class, known as Applied Scholastics.
The story prominently featured Prescott Middle School in Baton Rouge, which adopted the class 16 months ago, soon after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
David Touretzky, a research professor from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is perhaps the harshest critic of the program.
On Glenn Beck's CNN show Wednesday, Touretzky admitted the course doesn't actively convert children to Scientology. Instead, he described it as "covert instruction in the Scientology religion," introducing underlying concepts that create familiarity with Scientology.
"What they're trying to do is gain a foothold for Scientology in civilized society," he said.
None of the people interviewed for this story, however, have observed anything religious about the program at Prescott Middle, even covert. This reporter, though unaware of the Scientology connection, visited one of the classes last year and noticed nothing religious in the instruction.
According to Scientology literature, Hubbard developed the study techniques now used at Prescott to help the followers of his young religion learn its intricacies and unfamiliar technology — churchgoers still use them. Hubbard, however, decided the techniques were the answer to the problems of education in general.
In 1972, Scientologists started the nonprofit Applied Scholastics as a secular initiative to bring his techniques into schools. In 2001 Applied Scholastics began a major expansion. It reports now that it has licensed the program with 738 different educational entities around the world, including public schools in at least 13 states.
Several prominent celebrity Scientologists, including actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta and singer Isaac Hayes, credit the study technique with improving their own academic skills.
In the wake of Katrina, Hayes and Travolta were two of the many celebrities who visited Baton Rouge offering help. Bennetta Slaughter, chief executive officer of Applied Scholastics International and a Scientologist herself, said Hayes talked up the program with Holden.
Hayes thought Baton Rouge might benefit from the course, which is taught at her alma mater, Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn.
Holden had a school in mind: Prescott Middle.
The low-performing school had recently revamped itself to stave off a takeover by the Louisiana Department of Education. In spring 2005, Elida Bera was named principal. She hired an almost completely new staff and instituted an ambitious set of changes.
Bera said Holden called her in fall 2005. Bera took a look. In her reading, she saw that Hubbard had created the techniques.
"I'm leery about that," Bera said. "I'm 100 percent Catholic."
Applied Scholastics representatives, however, assured her that the program steered clear of religion.
The Scientology connection, however, was not well known in the parish school system. Stockwell, the system's chief academic officer, said he learned of the connection only after it had begun. He said the main attraction was the price, free.
"The fact that it's related to Scientology is probably fascinating to a lot of people, but it was not our focus or concern," Stockwell said.
In January 2006, Bera placed about 140 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in the program. The other students in those grades took a separate, school system-approved study skills course.
By May, when results from last year's eighth-grade LEAP test arrived, all 20 eighth-graders in the pilot had passed. The passage rate for the rest of the eighth-grade was 77 percent.
Applied Scholastics had a big advantage over the school system studies skill program: a small pupil-teacher ratio of no more than five to one.
Bera, however, said that small classes don't automatically translate into better results.
"If those teachers are not trained with working with a small group, they would do the same things they would if they were working with a large group," Bera said.
Another early skeptic was Southern University physics professor Diola Bagayoko. Founder of the Timbuktu Institute, a summer ACT prep course, Bagayoko had already formed a partnership with Prescott, where he helped train teachers and improve parental involvement.
Bagayoko said he did a lot of homework, reading a copy of the curriculum and several books provided by Applied Scholastics. Applied Scholastics is based on the idea that there are three barriers to learning: lack of mass, too steep a gradient and words not understood or wrongly understood.
Although the terminology is unique, Bagayoko saw in these concepts ideas widely used in education, and ones he had written about himself in academic papers.
In practice, he says, he's been impressed. The tutors are well trained, the students are closely monitored and students can't move on until they've mastered the material, he said.
"The origin of the material is not going to be a stumbling block for me to save the lives of thousands," he said.
Applied Scholastics has thus far eschewed recognition in academia, particularly getting its results published in education journals. Bagayoko, however, said Applied Scholastic representatives have ample data for educators to evaluate them.
"It's rooted in the most solid and established ideas of teaching and learning," he said.
Bagayoko now plans to train Southern students in the study techniques, so they can tutor children at nearby Southern Laboratory School.
Bera has added the program to her budget and hopes to locate tutors for next year. In the meantime, she's still examining this year's Louisiana Educational Assessment Program results to see how Applied Scholastics students did, but said other in-house tests show strong growth.
Stockwell said those results may decide whether the school system continues or perhaps expands the program.
Applied Scholastics CEO Slaughter said she hopes Baton Rouge leaders will soon run the program on their own.
"The most efficient method is to hand it over to the people there on the ground," she said.