Scientology-based literacy program raises questions
Taught at city schools site
By Marc Perrusquia
A literacy group with ties to the Church of Scientology says it used teaching materials by church founder L. Ron Hubbard in a pilot reading program housed in a Memphis City Schools facility.
The group, the World Literacy Crusade of Los Angeles, is now lobbying to make the program permanent through fund-raising brochures that quote a school employee who endorses the program.
The brochures also tell interested parties to call the Martin Luther King Jr. Educational and Cultural Center, a city schools-owned property at 620 S. Lauderdale.
Responding to an inquiry by The Commercial Appeal, city schools Supt. Gerry House said she will review the matter to see if school officials may have violated any policies.
Concerns include the literacy group’s contention it used Hubbard texts and teaching techniques last winter in a district-sponsored, after-school tutorial program attended largely by city school students.
With Memphis singer Isaac Hayes as their spokesman, literacy crusade organizers said they’ve done nothing wrong and hope to help children and adults in Memphis’s inner city.
The group says its teaching materials are nonreligious, effective tools that teach people “how to learn.” Largely through Hayes’s influence, the group is gaining local support.
For example, school board member Carl Johnson and Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey have agreed to serve on the literacy program’s board of advisers.
And a riverfront concert in July headlined by Hayes and sponsored in part by WMC television and radio raised about $ 15,000 for the literacy crusade, said crusade co-founder Rev. Alfreddie Johnson.
The crusade is also vying for $ 50,000 in U.S. Department of Labor funds to make the reading program permanent.
Cult critics are concerned the group is downplaying its ties to Scientology to make inroads here.
“Scientology is masterful at creating organizations which are subtly and intricately linked to the Church of Scientology itself. And oftentimes the public may not be aware of the link,” says Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization.
They point to fund-raising brochures that include comments from Hayes – who joined the church in 1993 – but do not make reference to Scientology.
The literacy crusade has no formal affiliation with the Church of Scientology, Johnson said. But several crusade leaders are involved with the church, and the organization is licensed to distribute Hubbard texts from a church satellite operation.
Some literacy professionals are skeptical of the group’s claims it can improve reading skills as much as four grade levels in as little as two months.
School board member Barbara Prescott said she was unfamiliar with the program but said she’ll ask House to take a closer look.
City schools spokesman Janice Crawford said there is no record the literacy crusade was issued a permit needed to run a program at the center: “If they did not have a permit, then the staff was wrong to allow them to be there. That’s why we have those kind of policies, so we can know who’s working with our children.”
As for Hayes, he said he’s not trying to mislead anyone. Hayes said he’s witnessed positive impacts the literacy crusade has had on youths in inner-city Los Angeles and hopes the same can happen in his hometown.
“The Study Technology (teaching techniques developed by Hubbard to study both his religion and secular matters) has nothing to do with Scientology,” said Hayes, 53. “It’s secular. Anybody can use it and get results.”
Hayes said he wasn’t hiding his ties to the church.
But he also said he was concerned about possible negative publicity that could hurt the literacy crusade’s efforts here:
“If an article comes out that puts a blight on my program by bringing Scientology into the picture, then that hurts my program, and it hampers my cause as far as bringing literacy to the inner cities.”
A man named John volunteers
It began with a press conference at the MLK Center last September. Hayes and literacy crusade leaders said the California-based nonprofit organization would open a literacy program here.
News reports noted that Hayes liked the center because of existing programs there.
MLK center administrator J. B. Payton, a city schools employee, told reporters the center offered GED classes and after-school homework help.
A year later, city schools officials are offering different accounts about how the literacy program got into the center.
Willie Slate, Payton’s boss, said she was not aware the literacy crusade ran a pilot literacy program there as it claims.
Slate, a city schools director of youth and family services who keeps her office at the center, said a volunteer – a man named John from California – pitched in for several weeks to tutor youngsters there.
City schools operates an after-school tutorial program at the MLK center, formerly a junior high building where the school system now allows public and private agencies to keep offices and provide services.
The after-school program, staffed and financed by the school system, is designed to help schoolchildren in the neighborhood get help with their homework.
Slate said she was aware the man named John was affiliated with the World Literacy Crusade. She said she observed John working with children in the after-school program and talked with him about his teaching philosophies.
But she said she did not know he considered his work to be “a pilot project.” He never mentioned Hubbard, Slate said, and he did not bring outside instructional materials with him.
“I saw no evidence of any of that at all. If I had to go on a witness stand, I couldn’t attest that was going on,” she said.
The volunteer was John Ellis, a Scientologist who was on the payroll of Applied Scholastics, a California organization that distributes Hubbard texts, when he was tutoring at the MLK center, said Rubina Qureshi, literacy crusade deputy executive director.
Ellis used Hubbard texts and Hubbard teaching techniques in assisting children at the center, Qureshi said. The books were displayed at the September press conference and have been at the center ever since, she said.
The hardback books, observed recently at the center, cite authorship based on “the works of L. Ron Hubbard.” With titles that include Learning How to Learn, How to Use a Dictionary and Study Skills for Life, they are published by Bridge Publications, a Los Angeles firm and an offshoot of the Church of Scientology.
A four-page World Literacy Crusade brochure says the group “ran a pilot program” at the MLK Center with the help of community support generated by Hayes, who “saw Study Technology as the solution for handling the rising unemployment, poverty and violence in his hometown of Memphis.”
The pilot involved more than 75 participants, including an 8-year-old girl whose “reading grades went from F to B,” the brochure says.
The brochure does not offer statistics documenting the success, but Hayes said he’s seen plenty of success stories here and in Los Angeles.
“If I didn’t think it was credible and viable,” he said, “I wouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place.”
The brochures also quote Payton, the MLK administrator: “This literacy program is a gold mine for the community. People are waking up and coming alive.”
In a recent interview, Payton said he understood there was a pilot program at the center and expected a permanent program to open in a couple of weeks.
The brochure, distributed during the July 3 Star Spangled Celebration, asks readers to “send a tax deductible contribution” and to call the MLK Center for more information.
The situation raises questions about whether several city schools policies were followed.
For example, a policy governing curriculum and instruction pilots requires textbook companies and publishers of instructional materials to “receive approval from the appropriate departmental assistant superintendent” before introducing “textbooks, instructional materials, instructional programs and/or learning activities in the Memphis City Schools.”
Supt. House said “official” pilot programs require a proposal from the outside agency and approval by administration.
Literacy crusade organizers say they operated a pilot program. House said she’s been told by subordinates only that a volunteer helped tutor at the center and there was “no pilot program that was implemented.”
Still, a city schools leaflet listing programs operating at the MLK center includes the “World Literacy Organization Homework/Tutorial – Adults/Children.”
At one point, city schools spokesman Crawford said she could not explain the listing. Later she said the listing referred to the tutor’s involvement months ago.
Another city schools policy question involves permits.
Crawford said permits are required for groups to use city school facilities. She said a permit was not issued to the World Literacy Crusade.
But, she said, if the incident at the center involved a volunteer, a permit would not be required. At best, the literacy program’s presence at the center doesn’t seem to involve a “major infringement on policy,” Crawford said.
“It seems to be a major concern to you,” she said.”But, no, it is not a major concern to us.”
Crusade makes big promises
Rev. Johnson said he formed the World Literacy Crusade in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “We’ve been able to take kids out of gangs, off gangs, and give them back hope and a future because now they believe they can read and write and understand,” he said.
The literacy crusade also has centers in New York, Oakland, Calif., and Sydney, Australia, and is opening centers in Tampa and Portland, Ore., Johnson said. The program in Compton, Calif., outside Los Angeles, has tutored more than 500 adults and children, many who have made literacy improvements, Johnson said.
“In a period of say three months or two months we can raise (reading levels) two or three or sometimes even four grade levels,” he said.
The literacy crusade employs Hubbard’s Study Technology, which adherents say is a nonreligious set of methods that can help people “learn how to learn.”
Employing a Hubbard concept known as “the misunderstood word,” the literacy crusade teaches that a person should consult a dictionary when encountering any word that is new or not understood. Johnson, a Baptist minister who has studied Scientology course work, said his group is licensed to distribute Hubbard texts through Applied Scholastics International, a Los Angeles organization spun off from Scientology.
Rosemary Dunstan, media coordinator of Applied Scholastics, said Scientologists use Hubbard’s study technology to study their religion, butit can be used by anyone “to overcome barriers encountered in studying and in learning.”
Johnson said the texts for a permanent literacy program at the MLK center would be purchased from Applied Scholastics by the literacy crusade and not involve any school money.
He said the literacy crusade supplements Hubbard’s study technology with some other books, including Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, as well as phonics studies.
Still, some literacy experts are skeptical. “This kind of frightens me,” said Carole Talan, director of the State Literacy Resource Center of California in Sacramento, a state agency overseeing literacy efforts there.
“Particularly since I know what a movement like that, if it gets the right connections . . . I can see a lot of people coming forward to support literacy programs without realizing what they might be getting into.”
Talan said she had never heard of the World Literacy Crusade but said she was skeptical. The use of grade levels often is not applicable to adults, she said.
Gay Johnston, executive director of the 21-year-old Memphis Literacy Council, also questioned the literacy crusade.
Established literacy programs generally employ a wide variety of texts, said Johnston, whose nonprofit organization has helped more than 10,000 Memphians improve their reading and writing skills since it was established in the 1970s. She said she’s never seen a program that relied so heavily on a narrow set of teaching materials.
“After doing a lot of research and reading, I’m convinced this literacy project, as they call it, is really a way to spread the message of L. Ron Hubbard,” Johnston said. “That’s what it’s all about. Otherwise, they’d use a lot of different materials and a lot of different authors.”
But Judge Bailey, who “tentatively” agreed to serve on the advisory board because of his “friendship and confidence in Isaac,” said: “I just have to look at what they’re doing and how they’re going about doing it.”
School board member Carl Johnson added: “I’m getting educated as I’m talking to you and other people.”