Clearwater -- A new private school using educational concepts promoted by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard is scheduled to open today downtown.
Clearwater Academy International, at Drew Street and Myrtle Avenue, will have an enrollment of 120 students from pre-kindergarten through the 12th grade, said executive director Pam Chipman.
A new $1.5-million facility now holds the combined enrollment and resources of three smaller schools that merged last year -- A to Be School, Jefferson Academy and Renaissance Academy.
A to Be School, the most dominant of the three, started in 1990 with 12 students in a small building on Myrtle Avenue, Chipman said. It later moved to a storefront on Cleveland Street, then to a Franklin Street building owned by the Church of Scientology and finally to a small office building farther east at 814 Franklin St.
In 1994, the school bought the land at Myrtle and Drew for the new school, which took about seven months to construct.
"Each time we've had to move, we've had more students," said Chipman, who led a grand opening ceremony Tuesday outside the school's new reception area.
About 150 people attended the event, including several top officials from the Church of Scientology, Clearwater's Assistant City Manager Bob Keller, city Public Works Administrator Rich Baier and Nancy Cartwright, one of several celebrities who work to promote Scientology and its causes. Cartwright is the voice of Bart Simpson in the animated television show The Simpsons.
Students at Clearwater Academy progress at their own pace, mostly in classrooms that house two or more grades. For example, Grades 6 through 8 are in a second-floor classroom that will be staffed by two teachers and an assistant. The neighboring class will house Grades 9 through 12.
In keeping with Hubbard's "study technology," students are taught using a system of "check sheets" that lay out the reading assignments, definitions and concepts required to master each subject.
Students are schooled in a primary tenet of Hubbard's "tech," which is never to read past a word they don't understand lest they miss the entire meaning of the text that follows.
Another tenet is that students learn better when they have "mass" in front of them to illustrate abstract concepts. To that end, each classroom contains a clay table where students mold shapes that represent concepts they are trying to learn.
Classrooms also contain tables for "practical drills," where students are drilled on subjects until they understand them 100 percent. There are no letter grades.
Students advance to the next grade after successfully completing a check sheet for that grade. A fifth-grader, for example, might advance to sixth grade in November after completing the required 6,250 words of required reading.
The concept of students advancing at their own pace and learning in multi-grade classrooms is known in traditional educational circles as "continuous progress" and is being tried in Pasco County public schools.
"In small schools you'll find more than one grade level," said Cathy Wooley-Brown, state charter school coordinator from the University of South Florida. "We have multilevel classes in traditional schools. It's being touted as an innovative practice. . . . Teachers who are really creative and innovative and know how to meet individual kids' needs will be really successful."
The annual tuition at Clearwater Academy is $7,800. School is in session year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, except for 6 weeks of off time sprinkled throughout each year.
Jeffrey Feldman, a securities trader and Scientologist who moved from New York to Clearwater in 1994, said he first sent his two daughters to other local private schools. The family went through "a nightmare" preparing the younger girl for tests.
"She was able to be ready and get a good grade but wouldn't know anything about (the subject)," Feldman said. In schools that use Hubbard's methods, he said, students are taught how to apply what they learn and remember it.
Feldman joined the board of the new school and has become one of its prime benefactors. Today the campus bears his name.
Chipman downplayed the school's ties to the Church of Scientology, which has its spiritual headquarters in Clearwater. She said some students come from non-Scientology families.
"I don't pay attention to that," she said. "We don't ask" families about their church affiliations.
The school is licensed by Applied Scholastics, which the Church of Scientology lists as one of its "social betterment" programs.
Another local school using Hubbard's educational ideas is Delphi Academy of Florida at 1831 Drew St. That school has about 200 students, ages 2 to 14.
In addition, the Church of Scientology has a school for the children of staff members. It is known as the Cadet School at the church's staff residence at 16432 U.S. 19.