Scientology ties at New Village Leadership Academy stir controversy for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Calabasas, California private elementary school New Village Leadership Academy (NVLA) opened its 2009–10 school year this week amid controversy over its connections to Scientology. The school was founded by celebrity couple Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, who paid about US$1 million to lease the facility in 2008. Former head of school Jacqueline Olivier was removed from her job in July, and replaced by Piano Foster, an individual who has taken Scientology courses at the organization's Celebrity Centre.

Will Smith in 2008
Image: Taís Melillo.

Smith and Pinkett-Smith are good friends with Scientologists Katie Holmes and her husband Tom Cruise. In 2006, Smith acknowledged to World Entertainment News Network that he had discussed Scientology with Cruise: "I've talked to Tom about it. [There’s] lots of incredible, wonderful concepts but Jada and I don't necessarily believe in organized religion." ABC News reported that 2008 tax returns for the Smiths show they gave $122,500 to organizations with ties to the Church of Scientology.

"All I can say is it is not a Scientology school."

Jada Pinkett-Smith

In an interview with Ebony, Pinkett-Smith denied the school was affiliated with Scientology: "All I can say is it is not a Scientology school. Now, If you don't trust me, and you are questioning my integrity, that's a whole different matter. That is straight evil to think I would bring families into that educational institution and then try to get them to convert into some religion," she said. According to New York Daily News, the school is registered with the government of California as "non-religious".

The school utilizes a teaching methodology called Study Technology, which was developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Study Technology is promoted through Applied Scholastics, a Scientology-associated organization founded in 1972. "Study Technology is a secular methodology intended to help students better understand what is being studied and apply it to real life," said Pinkett-Smith in an email to Karin Pouw, an official with the Church of Scientology, was contacted by ABC News but did not comment on a possible affiliation between NVLA and Scientology, instead referring questions back to the school itself.

New York Daily News cited Radar Online in reporting that former head of school Olivier was fired from her position because she had issues with the Study Tech teaching methodology used in the school. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Olivier was removed from her $200,000 position with the school because she reportedly did not agree with portions of the school's curriculum which were developed by L. Ron Hubbard.

"What they seem to have is some sort of a hybrid. Scientology repackaged for the Hollywood crowd."

—Professor David S. Touretzky

Carnegie Mellon University computer science Professor David S. Touretzky, described by ABC News as "the most ardent critic of Study Technology", spoke with about his thoughts on Scientology connections with the school: "What they seem to have is some sort of a hybrid. Scientology repackaged for the Hollywood crowd. It's hitting all the politically correct elements ... but snuck in there is this Scientology stuff." Professor Touretzky operates a web site which analyzes Study Tech and argues that it is actually a form of Scientology masked as an educational method. In a February 2008 interview with Wikinews, Professor Touretzky mused that recent criticism of Scientology on the Internet might prove to "warn off Hollywood celebs from cozying up to the cult", including Will Smith.

Executive director of the California Association of Independent Schools, Jim McManus, was also critical of L. Ron Hubbard's methodology, stating: "I look at the Study Tech ideas and it doesn't seem sound educationally." University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham, author of Why Don't Students Like School, asserted to ABC News that the methodology is flawed: "It's perfectly possible that the methodology is based on ridiculous principles and that something effective is happening in the classroom, but ridiculous principles certainly lowers that possibility."

"This revenue stream is one of the many sources of income which the Church of Scientology uses for such tactics as invoking frivolous lawsuits and hiring private investigators to intimidate critics."

Project Chanology press release

Members of the Internet-based group critical of Scientology, Project Chanology, were present at the school's 2009 opening to protest what they called a "front" of the Church of Scientology. A 2008 press release by Project Chanology was critical of what it referred to as the revenue the Church of Scientology receives from licensing fees schools pay the organization for utilizing the Study Tech teaching methodology. "This revenue stream is one of the many sources of income which the Church of Scientology uses for such tactics as invoking frivolous lawsuits and hiring private investigators to intimidate critics," said the press release.

According to the web site, which publishes data compiled from Scientology magazines Freewinds, Celebrity and Auditor, multiple individuals in management roles at NVLA have attended Scientology classes. In addition to the newly installed head of school, Piano Foster, the school's director of learning Tasia Jones and its artistic director Sisu Raiken have both received Scientology course training. "I officially took over on July 1, 2009, and I'm looking forward to the challenge. I've been working in education for the past 20 years at various public and charter schools so I feel I'm ready for the job," said Foster of her new position at NVLA.


  Learn more about New Village Leadership Academy and Study Tech on Wikipedia.