The (UK) Times Online ~ Will Smith’s school deserves to avoid cult status

June 30, 2008 under Will Smith / NVA

LA Notebook: The actor must prove there is no Scientology link to his pet project

by Chris Ayres

As hard as I’ve tried – and believe me, I’ve tried – I have never been able to get particularly upset about Scientology. Yes, it’s a hugely profitable supplier of dubiously scientific self-help techniques that also manages to enjoy the tax-exempt status of a religion. Yes, it has a long and dark history of trying to silence critics through intimidation, not to mention all those run-ins with the taxman and the FBI. Yes, it sometimes comes between cult members – sorry, Scientologists – and their families.

And yes, it sues over the copyright of its “religious” texts and sends internal troublemakers (Suppressive People) to an Orwellian-sounding Rehabilitation Project Force, where they perform manual labour to make up for their sins. And that’s before we get on to Tom Cruise’s thousand-yard stare (or alien overlords called Xenu, for that matter).

I suppose that the reason I’ve never been able to get upset about Scientology is that it has never seemed any crazier to me than any other religion.

As for the charge that Scientology rips people off by flogging them endless books, DVDs, and personal improvement courses – well, people buy all sorts of nonsense, don’t they?

Any time that I hear someone complaining that they spent 20 years of their life and the contents of their pension fund on Scientology but now believe that the organisation is a dangerous cult, I just think, more fool you – if hadn’t been Scientology, you’d have probably e-mailed your bank account details to a spammer posing as a Sudanese prince, who told you that he needed a safe place to put his billion-dollar oil holdings while plotting his escape to the Moon.

But what happens when an A-list celebrity with links to Scientology sets-up his own elementary school in a wealthy mountain-top suburb of Los Angeles, with 40-100 pupils and annual fees of up to $12,500 (most students will receive financial assistance)? Is that enough to get me worried?

Yes, it is.

The actor Will Smith – for whom I have a great deal of respect – claims through his spokespeople that the New Village Academy in Calabasas is a “secular” school that will merely use a teaching method developed by the late L. Ron Hubbard, who created Scientology in the 1950s. (“Faculty and staff do not promote their own religions at school,” Jacqueline Olivier, the school’s director, insists.)

Critics say that the method, known as “study tech”, is simply a way to indoctrinate children with Scientology jargon and establish Hubbard as an authority figure, leading them to the organisation later. The Scientologists deny this and argue that study tech has been used effectively in other secular schools around the world.

To which I say, prove it. As with all belief-systems, I imagine that there are some genuinely helpful elements of Scientology. But if the organisation wants people to take its methods seriously, and see them as benign educational aids, rather than brainwashing tools, it needs to come out of the closet.

If I were Will Smith, I would invite some independent researchers into the school and let them publish their findings in a leading educational journal. Unless he does, the school will always have the whiff of a Scientology front organisation, along with Applied Scholastics and (my favourite) the Cult Awareness Network. If Smith really wants to help the kids of LA – as he undoubtedly does – that would be a shame.

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LA Times ~ Scientology is focus of flap over Will Smith’s new school

June 29, 2008 under Will Smith / NVA

Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles’ rarefied world of private schools, where tuitions are high, academics are tough and educational philosophy is taken seriously, the newest member of the tribe is getting the kind of breathless attention reserved for a music or film star.

That may be because the founders of New Village Academy are themselves such stars: Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Entertainers have long flocked to private schools on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, where campuses are comparatively small, offer a discreet environment and are close to studios.

The Smiths, however, will be among the few celebrities — Oprah Winfrey, Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods among them — to establish their own school or program.

It is one of several initiatives by the couple, including a new foundation that will give grants to young people in the arts and education. About 80% of New Village students will receive financial assistance in the fall.

But the school’s Sept. 3 opening, on the leased campus of a former school in Calabasas, will be accompanied by a whiff of controversy. Some of its teachers are members of the Church of Scientology, and it will use teaching methods developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

That has provoked a slew of headlines: On, “Will Smith Funds Private Scientology School”; from Britain’s The Guardian, “Will Smith funds school teaching Scientology creator’s study method”; and on the religion blog of the Dallas Morning News, “Is Will Smith school a front for Scientology?”

Both Smiths have said they are not Scientologists.

In a statement, Will Smith said of the school: “About 10 years ago, Jada and I started dreaming about the possibility of creating an ideal educational environment, where children could feel happy, positive and excited about learning. . . .

“New Village Academy was born of a simple question, ‘Is it possible to create an educational environment in which children have fun learning?’ Jada and I believe the answer is ‘Yes.’ ”

New Village Academy began about three years ago as a home school for the Smiths’ youngest children — Jaden, 9 and Willow, 7 — and those of several other families. After an extensive search, Jacqueline Olivier, previously an administrator at private schools in Santa Monica and La Jolla, was hired to head the school.

Since joining the school a year ago, she has been responsible for hiring staff and preparing for the opening of the new campus.

Olivier responded to written questions about the school submitted through Will Smith’s publicist. She said some staff members are Scientologists and others are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. The school has no religious affiliation, she said.

“We are a secular school and just like all nonreligious independent schools, faculty and staff do not promote their own religions at school or pass on the beliefs of their particular faith to children,” Olivier said.

One teaching method the school uses is study technology, which was developed by Hubbard and focuses on students gaining hands-on experience, mastering subject matter before moving to the next level, and being taught not to read past words they don’t understand.

“People tend to think study technology is a subject, but it is really just the way the subject is taught,” Olivier said. “They then come to the conclusion that we are teaching Scientology when actually a methodology doesn’t have anything to do with content.”

The school, she said, will use many philosophies, including Montessori, Bruner and Gardner. Olivier said the Smiths would pay nearly $900,000 to lease the Indian Hills High School campus in the Las Virgenes Unified School District for three years. Fall enrollment is expected to be about 40 students and will eventually rise to about 100, she said. The school will include pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, with a top annual tuition of $12,500.

The school’s executive director is Jana Babatunde-Bey, who worked as general manager of Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment and is currently director of philanthropy and vice president of the Smith Holdings Group, according to the school’s website.

New Village plans to have nonprofit status, as well as accreditation from the California Assn. of Independent Schools, which demands strict accountability and an on-site visit by a team of educators.

The success of a new school is not guaranteed, noted association Executive Director Jim McManus. Many fail after a few years, and it remains to be seen how the Smith cachet will affect enrollment.

Olivier is a respected educator, McManus said. “I think she’s really energetic, hardworking and in tune with evolving research and responsible trends in education,” he said.

The New Village curriculum includes literacy and math, and subjects such as living skills, Spanish, karate, yoga, robotics, technology, etiquette and art. Parental involvement is encouraged, as is limited access to television and sugary foods.

But critics contend that the school is not being honest about its links to Scientology. David S. Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, created a website that dissects study technology and asserts that it is Scientology religion disguised as education.

Touretzky said many phrases and concepts on the school’s website are specific to Scientology. For example, the school lists a “Director of Qualifications” and another teacher who is an assistant in the “Qual” department. The “Qual,” said Touretzky, is where people who have completed a Scientology counseling, or “auditing,” session or a course in the Church of Scientology are tested by a qualifications teacher.

“There is no reputable educator anywhere who endorses [study technology],” said Touretzky, a critic of Scientology. “What happens is that children are inculcated with Scientology jargon and are led to regard L.R. Hubbard as an authority figure. They are laying the groundwork for later bringing people into Scientology.”

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, Karin Pouw, denied Touretzky’s assertions and said the teaching methods are not religious and are widely used in schools around the world.

Ron Reynolds, executive director of the California Assn. of Private School Organizations, which represents primarily independent religious schools, said all schools should strive for transparency.

“I know next to nothing about Scientology, but if you’re using some method or technology closely associated with Scientology and Scientology is characterized as a church or religious body, it raises a question if they proclaim themselves as other than religious,” Reynolds said. He has not seen the school’s website.

“I don’t want to insinuate the school is failing to disclose anything. But as a matter of good practice, if a school has an affiliation, it would behoove it to expose it.”

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