Controversial church linked to tutors on state list

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/March 1, 2009

A tutoring agency in Cobb County with ties to the Church of Scientology has drawn critics along with federal dollars.

Applied Scholastics pledges to offer only secular lessons. But critics who lodged four complaints last year against the nonprofit - which uses Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s teachings - wrote they feared it wouldn’t keep ideology out of the classroom.

State education officials began an annual inspection in February and will observe the group’s tutoring this month. The review will include making sure Applied Scholastics’ policies and teachings are geared toward secular instruction, officials said.

Private agencies apply to the state Board of Education for a spot on the list of tutors parents can pick from to get extra help for children at certain schools that failed to meet federal academic standards. Georgia’s Department of Education monitors approved tutors while the federal government foots the bill.

Scientology is a religion that counts among its members such Hollywood celebrities as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Applied Scholastics has caused controversy in recent years in U.S. cities as well as in other countries. In April, for instance, a Boston pilot program for a charter school had its foundation grant questioned after a newspaper reported the school was adopting Applied Scholastics.

Supporters argue the program is nonreligious and has helped students overcome learning problems. Opponents argue it’s a veiled way for Scientology - which some opponents charge is a cult - to bring its ideas to children and their parents.

Applied Scholastics uses Hubbard’s "study technology," described on the group’s Web site as "a system of learning how to learn." Hubbard argued that a tutor needs to work closely with students to overcome barriers to learning by breaking down complex ideas.

Critics argue that Hubbard’s framework and terminology used in StudyTech mimic the practices of Scientology. People joining Scientology are assigned an "auditor" who helps them break down barriers.

A spokeswoman for St. Louis-based Applied Scholastics said the tutor does not teach Scientology, but does use Hubbard’s educational practices.

"Our organization is not a religious organization," said Keri Lee. "There is no connection to any church. We use Mr. Hubbard’s teachings. And we are really grateful for them."

Four of the 123 other state-approved tutors say they are faith-based. None has received complaints, state officials said.

The Georgia Board of Education approved Applied Scholastics in 2006 for a three-year license - which is up for renewal in September - to tutor children in grades one through eight in reading and math. The group currently tutors 17 students in Cobb County, state officials said.

The four e-mailed complaints last year alleged Applied Scholastics is a front for Scientology, though none came from a tutored student’s parent. Two of the writers identified themselves as Georgia residents; a third said she was a former Applied Scholastics student.

Mona Manus, who learned about the group while surfing the Web, filed a complaint in April.

State officials said that as long as Applied Scholastics follows state and federal rules, it can remain on the approved tutor list.

"The law was designed to give parents the option and allow them to do the research," said Dana Tofig, state education spokesman.

Applied Scholastics received $11,300 in federal money for the past two school years, a Cobb district spokesman said.

In its application, Applied Scholastics cited Hubbard’s work as the basis for its approach. State examiners gave the application acceptable marks overall, but they raised questions about the group’s effort to remain non-ideological.

But in its spring 2007 review, Applied Scholastics met or exceeded all state requirements, documents show, including neutrality. State tutor program monitor Lou Ferretti said that during that site visit he saw students sitting at a table at a Cobb library working.

Cruise was a speaker at the opening of the Applied Scholastics world headquarters in 2003. The Scientology magazine Freedom reported he told the crowd that he was trying to learn how to fly for the 1986 movie "Top Gun," but he had trouble understanding the manuals. He said he had been "diagnosed with a false label, dyslexia."

"Shortly after that I discovered ‘the Study Technology,’ " he said, adding that he later learned to fly.

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