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Group with Scientology ties tutoring kids in Colorado public schools

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Six years ago, a group called Applied Scholastics International won state approval to tutor low-income students from struggling public schools.

The group touts its so-called study technology as “the breakthrough that undercuts why people are illiterate.”

The materials were developed by “educator and humanitarian” L. Ron Hubbard, the group explained in its application to the Colorado Department of Education.

Hubbard is better known as a science-fiction writer who went on to found the Church of Scientology.

Since 2008, three Colorado public school districts have given more than $150,000 in federal money to Applied Scholastics to provide tutoring to nearly 120 students, a Denver Post review found.

Students from the Denver, Jefferson County and Aurora public school districts received tutoring from the group.

Jeanette Banks, executive director of A Plus Educational Center in Lakewood, which provides tutoring in Colorado under the Applied Scholastics name, said the content is secular.

She said the group has no relationship with the Church of Scientology and does not promote any religious path.

But critics question the material’s worth or characterize it as an attempt to indoctrinate children and lend credibility to a fringe religion.

The organization is at risk of being removed from the state’s list of approved tutoring providers but not because of any ties to Scientology.

The state’s most recent annual review of all providers found that Applied Scholastics failed to be effective in increasing student performance. The group was put on notice that if that happens again, it will no longer be eligible to take part in the program.

Applied Scholastics International says it tutored children through government-backed programs in a dozen states last school year, up from four in 2006.

In response to questions from The Post about the group’s connections with Scientology, the state Education Department also will begin monitoring the program to make sure it is following protocol, said Nazanin Mohajeri-Nelson, a department program evaluator.

“The program as it’s described in the application does not appear to be religiously driven, but what’s actually being implemented is the part we need to investigate,” Mohajeri-Nelson said.

Paid with federal funds

As part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, schools missing certain benchmarks must offer free tutoring to eligible children from providers approved by the state and selected by parents.

Districts use federal Title I money to cover the costs. Religious groups are eligible to participate in Colorado, but all instruction must be “secular, neutral and non-ideological.”

Applied Scholastics’ 2006 application to the state includes testimonials from public- and private-school officials, proposed reading passages and a cover letter identifying the group’s advisory board — including movie star and prominent Scientologist Tom Cruise.

The state approved the group’s application to provide math and reading tutoring in 2006, then reapproved the group in 2010.

Mohajeri-Nelson said a committee reviewed the application and concluded that the material met standards and appeared secular.

Theory criticized

In its most recent application, Applied Scholastics proposed working with students in kindergarten through eighth grade individually and in small groups, charging $45 an hour per student — about average for providers, records show.

Student activities include standard approaches — such as flash cards and using dictionaries — and more unusual tactics such as modeling in clay to better visualize subjects.

Hubbard identified three “barriers to study,” including a “lack of mass,” or the absence of the actual object described by a word. Students as a result tend to feel “squashed, bent, sort of spinny, sort of dead, or bored,” Applied Scholastics teaches.

Ben Kirshner, an associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Education, said Hubbard’s theory about barriers to study has no scientific or empirical foundation.

The theories range from common sense to “stranger claims about what happens physiologically when one is confused,” said Kirshner, who reviewed Applied Scholastics material at The Post’s request.

He also said evidence of student growth provided by the group does not appear to have been compiled by an independent entity or have any record of publication or peer review.

According to its most recent tax forms, St. Louis-based Applied Scholastics International took in about $1.3 million in revenue in 2010 from its education and literacy programs.

The group reported working with 248 public schools — a significant increase over the previous year’s 74.

Calls to the organization were not returned.

Banks, of the Denver-area Applied Scholastics center, declined an interview request but agreed to answer questions by e-mail.

She said Applied Scholastics has tutored 118 students since 2006 — local districts reported 116 — and is “delivering the program exactly as it was approved by the state of Colorado.”

Banks pointed to Applied Scholastics literature calling Hubbard’s approach, developed in the 1960s, “a wholly secular technology for use by any person in any field.”

The Church of Scientology and its members “have been extremely assistive” to Applied Scholastics, the group says. Banks, a Scientologist, said three of the group’s 13 tutors in Colorado are church members.

“Legitimizing” church

David Touretzky, a Carnegie Mellon University research professor who has written critically of Scientology, describes study technology as covert religious instruction.

He said terms in the tutoring also are found in Scientology, including “misunderstood words.” Hubbard taught that failing to grasp the meaning of one word in a passage can completely upend learning, causing students to feel “blank” or “washed out.”

“They are setting the stage for kids to be good little compliant Scientologists,” Touretzky said. “The whole point is to get to where they can say, ‘Look, the state of Colorado is paying us to use Scientology tech.’ It’s all about legitimizing Hubbard and the church.”

Banks said such critics “do not understand the first thing about study technology.”

State OKs providers

Compared with other tutoring groups in Colorado, Applied Scholastics is a minor player. More than 8,100 students received tutoring in 2009-10 — and only 25 used Applied Scholastics, records show.

Aurora Public Schools — which has paid Applied Scholastics $81,434 to tutor 61 students since 2008 — was unaware of the group’s ties to Scientology, district spokeswoman Paula Hans said.

On-site coordinators monitor all tutoring, she said.

Hans, like officials at the other districts with an Applied Scholastics presence, emphasized that the state, not districts, approves providers.

None of the districts reported any concerns from parents about the program.

Under federal guidelines, states also must measure the effectiveness of tutoring programs and cut off groups found to be failing for two straight years.

For a period, Applied Scholastics did not tutor enough children to make an assessment possible, said Mohajeri-Nelson, the program evaluator.

But the numbers were large enough to conduct a review in 2010-11. It found Applied Scholastics students did not improve in reading or math as much as a comparison group of students.

On July 17, the state notified Applied Scholastics it would be removed from the program if next year’s review finds similar results.

The state’s additional monitoring of Applied Scholastics will involve interviewing the group, tutors and district officials, Mohajeri-Nelson said.

The organization will need to reapply in December if it wishes to continue to provide tutoring in the program.

Scientologists’ community involvement was spotlighted in June at the grand opening of a high-profile new church in downtown Denver.

The church long has been controversial, criticized as a moneymaking scheme that exerts excessive control.

Banks said Applied Scholastics’ study technology has a sole purpose: teaching people how to learn.

Eric Gorski

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  • comment avatar Sid August 7, 2012

    Other than vague references to other claimed successes, can you provide any examples of this being used effectively in the public schools? Ones that are actual study results and can be referenced as such.

  • comment avatar Same August 7, 2012

    “The state’s most recent annual review of all providers found that Applied Scholastics failed to be effective in increasing student performance. The group was put on notice that if that happens again, it will no longer be eligible to take part in the program.”

    Evidently not this group…….

    Keep all religions out of public schools. If a religious based group wants to start their own school fine. There’s simply no place for it in the public school system.

  • comment avatar Sid August 7, 2012

    The results of which can be read about almost daily in the news lately.

    And not the good news.

    And which will continue to increase, while the left denies there is any relationship.

  • comment avatar Collinsian August 7, 2012

    The Hubbard Study Technology is a study methodology that helps turn at-risk students into interested students. It turns good students into excellent ones–when it’s correctly applied.

    If–and that’s a big if–it’s not performing admirably here, you can be certain it’s not being used correctly. It’s that fool-proof.

    I’ve seen it turn around a kid who got sick in math classes into joyfully buzzing through her lessons. And just how do you think Travolta got his jet pilot’s license?

    A few schools have used Study Tech exclusively for decades and have been graduating well prepared young men and women who start their own businesses, pursue their desired professional schooling, or go on to engineering or medical school.

  • comment avatar Jeremy August 7, 2012

    the reason why poverty stricken children are doing so poorly at school is because the home lives they have are crap. Kinda of hard to study when you’re parents are under stress. Be it stress from not having a job, a low paying job, relationship difficulties, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, if the parent’s aren’t having a easy time at life, the kids aren’t going to have a easy time at school.

  • comment avatar LeRoy August 7, 2012

    Great comment. Poverty is the number one deterent to success in schools. This is a fact, but some how our society believes it can put together a patch work of tutors and special programs to overcome the obstacles cited above.

    To make things worse, poverty is on the rise in the US.

    It’s my hope that the root problem, poverty, gets addressed directly, but with the current attitude of selfishness I see today I doubt this will come to fruition.

  • comment avatar Same I August 7, 2012

    Can you prove there’s a relationship?

    I went to a Catholic school for the first eight of my schooling. The percentages were pretty much the same when compared to the number of kids who got in trouble that went to public schools.

    It’s naive to believe that if religion were introduced into the public school system juvenile crime would be reduced. If not naive, certainly a false implication…which the religious faithful have no problem throwing out there every time they get the opportunity.

  • comment avatar LowJay August 7, 2012

    Poverty as an excuse to be uneducated is a lazy man’s argument. Public education has always been called the great equalizer because you are get a chance to be educated no matter what your economic situation. If people don’t take advantage of that situation its their own fault. You can’t legislate stupid away. There are plenty of anectodial stories about poor kids finding success at public schools. If you want to help more of those kid out, put more funding back into school extracurricular activities to help kids normalize their lives….don’t just keep throwing money and legislation at the bad parents.

    As far as L. Ron Hubbard ‘educational’ materials its entirely irresponsible for the State of Colorado to endorse teaching methodolgies of a documented liar, science fiction novelist and potential con artist. No wonder the group’s performance is being questioned…they are using materials created by a loon. Try to stick to educational materials created by people with actual credentials in teaching…you might find they actually know what they are talking about. People in charge pull these kinds of stunts and then we wonder why the US ranks so low in education versus the rest of the world. What a joke.

  • comment avatar LowJay August 7, 2012

    I knew a lot of kids that went to private catholic schools up through 8th grade here in Denver and they were better at A LOT of subjects than the rest of us. Having more of a traditional focus on actual education as well as having some serious discipline consequences for doing stupid things seemed to do all those kids well. I don’t know if I necessarily endorse religious education for everyone, but the loosy goosey ways of schools these days certianly doesn’t seem to be improving things.

  • comment avatar Dayton August 7, 2012

    Interesting to note that Applied Scholastics 2010 application states a bold-faced lie at the top of page two where they failed to acknowledge they have been removed as an approved SES provider from several other states that include California, Florida, Georgia and Kansas.

    The reason Applied Scholastics lost their approved SES vendor status for Title I funding in other states is exactly the same as what Colorado is now seeing – failure to improve students proficiency in reading and math.

    So this is nothing new, and it is encouraging to see the Colorado Dept. of Education is finally getting wise to it since Colorado, Missouri and Louisiana are the key states where Applied Scholastics got approved when NCLB first went into effect and managed to last more than 2-3 years as an approved vendor.

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