At-risk students at the Career Success charter school district have been exposed to teaching methods that have ties to the Church of Scientology, according to former teachers and administrators.
Those ex-employees said materials they were asked to use in the classroom crossed the line that separates religion and public schools. A First Amendment attorney said they have a reason to be concerned.
Bob Duffy Robert L. Duffy, in front of the high school named after him, says the materials he asked his teachers to use were not religious.
Back in 2010, teacher Katie Donahoe went to a training session in St. Louis. She had just signed on to teach English in Phoenix at a Career Success high school, and her new boss had asked her to learn about the teaching methods of Applied Scholastics. When Donahoe arrived, she said an employee at the company's headquarters took her through what looked like a showroom.
"They didn't start off talking about instruction. They started off talking about L. Ron Hubbard," said Donahoe, referring to the founder of Scientology, the religion known for its Hollywood following.
Hubbard is also the creator of Applied Scholastics.
"The next stop was to watch a video talking about how great Applied Scholastics was," Donahoe said. "Well guess who was on the video. It was Isaac Hayes. It was Tom Cruise. It was John Travolta. These are not education experts, these are scientology spokespeople. It was very weird."
Applied Scholastics did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But a package from the Church of Scientology in Los Angeles recently arrived in my mailbox. The materials inside were stamped with both logos, and a DVD explained that Scientology sponsors the organization, and has supported it since 1972.
A statement from a church spokesperson further explained that independent, secular entities, like Applied Scholastics, exist to get Hubbard's programs applied broadly.
"The Church of Scientology and individual Scientologists support them as part of our social mission to help people," the statement said. "Many educators find that these programs fill gaps not otherwise being provided for."
Still, Applied Scholastics made Katie Donahoe so uncomfortable that when she began work at the Career Success district, she chose to ignore the training all together. And Donahoe said there was something else that worried her.
She explained teachers at her school were encouraged to distribute booklets called, "The Way to Happiness." It's another Hubbard creation that lays out 21 precepts for moral living.
Some of the tenants include: Do Not Murder. Do Not Steal. Honor and Help Your Parents.
But again, Donahoe refused to distribute the booklets because the commandment-like language and the link to Hubbard just felt wrong.
"Never ever have I given the kids anything affiliated with a religious organization and in a public school that's the way it should be," she said.
The president of the Way to Happiness Foundation International, Caralyn Percy, emailed a statement to KJZZ, saying the material is a nonreligious moral code based wholly on common sense.
So the question is, does it belong in schools?
Robert L. Duffy High School is part of the Career Success District, which received about $6 million from Arizona in 2011 to educate mostly low-income minority students. And Robert Duffy, the man who runs the district, said the Hubbard materials help those students learn.
"It's very basic stuff," he said. "It has nothing to do with church or religion. Believe me I am not a Scientologist. I hear things about them, and I don't support that at all."
If a child is struggling with ratios, for instance, Duffy said the student might be asked to make a clay model of a ratio to better visualize the concept.
"It's a tool. It's nothing that goes beyond this. Believe me," he said.
Duffy acknowledged that he spent money on those tools, including training for himself, administrators and teachers in his district. He also said he launched the campaign for the Way to Happiness booklets, and its 21 precepts for moral living, at Robert L. Duffy High School.
If they wanted a booklet, "they could take it," Duffy said. "It wasn't pushed down their throat. We didn't have any classes on it or anything."
These materials have caused a stir before. Last year, the Denver Post reported that Colorado public schools have spent $150,000 of federal money on Applied Scholastics' tutoring program. And in the late 1990s, a Los Angeles woman with ties to Scientology met with controversy when she included Applied Scholastics in a proposed charter school. At the time, First Amendment lawyer Doug Mirell was asked to review Scientology doctrine and compare it to Hubbard's educational materials.
Mirell, who is also on the board of the Southern California ACLU, says he found significant connections between the texts. And that could violate the Constitution.
"You run a serious risk that those materials may be misused and they may become indeed a subterfuge for teaching the religion, as opposed to teaching about religion," Mirell said in a recent interview.
Meanwhile, Arizona's Board of Education says it's not familiar with Hubbard's materials, adding that legitimate concerns about religious materials in public schools would be investigated.