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Scientology's children: On education

Like the church he founded, the teaching methods espoused by L. Ron Hubbard create controversy. And they are spreading, across the United States and around the world.

L. Ron Hubbard wrote science fiction stories and founded a religion — but he didn't stop there.

He went on, according to his followers, to achieve tremendous breakthroughs in education.

There are now more than 150 Hubbard-method schools around the world. They achieve superior results, according to supporters, and are free of drugs and drug-related violence.

Some bay area parents give high marks to schools using the Hubbard method.

"I have two children that are in a school where Scientology study tech is being applied . . . (and) both of them are really doing great," wrote Linda Hilton.

Schools in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Italy, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom use Hubbard's methods, according to Applied Scholastics, a corporation that licenses the techniques.

Critics say the schools are fronts for Scientology, that their hidden purpose is to lure the unwitting into a cult with designs on their money. Some students who have had instruction under the Hubbard system and at public schools say they learned more in public schools.

Even nations disagree on the matter.

In Germany, government authorities strictly regulate the schools. Strict regulations and grass-roots movements by citizens forced Scientologists to close one school near Munich and abandon plans for another near Hamburg. Authorities believe the methods cause psychological damage, said Monika Schipmann, an official with the Berlin Education Department, which is responsible for sects.

"They teach authoritarian, hierarchal thought patterns," said Ralf Mucha, an official of Action Psychocult Threat, a state-supported private agency in Dusseldorf. He said word clearing — a Hubbard method that focuses on the meanings words — "does not promote logical thinking."

Advocates of the method have shifted focus to the area that was East Germany, where the collapse of communism has left many young people in search of a new value system.

But in South Africa, the schools reportedly have had considerable success, especially among poor black families, and are backed by some South African corporations.

Three schools in Clearwater employ Hubbard's educational ideas, but there is no public record to gauge their effectiveness. Florida, unlike some other states, has virtually no regulation of teaching methods or curriculum at private schools. Like many other private schools, the Clearwater schools using the Hubbard method are unaccredited.

The Times asked a professor of education at the University of South Florida to analyze the Basic Study Manual, which outlines the fundamentals of Hubbard's methods.

"I don't see any harm in the techniques," said Evelyn Searls. "Neither do I think they are a panacea for literacy problems."

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Hubbard "uncovered the basic reason for failures of a student to grasp any subject," according to Scientology advertisements.

The only reason a person becomes unable to learn, according to Hubbard, is that the person went past a word he or she didn't understand.

Most schools tell children to look up words in dictionaries. But it is pre-eminent in the Hubbard technique.

His methods are designed to help people learn to learn and can be applied to traditional school subjects. Hubbard's followers say his methods enable anyone to learn anything.

* * *

Failure to grasp the meaning of a word can lead to more than bad grades, according to Hubbard. It can make students appear tired or disinterested.

Lilly Dodd, 16, is a former student of the Delphi Academy in Los Angeles, which uses Hubbard's methods.

"So if you're sitting there reading a book and you yawn," she said, "then they will call you over to a place where they will try and look for misunderstood words.... They'll sit there and ask you what does the word `the' mean? If you don't answer it, and you don't answer it within three seconds or so, they'll send you over to a dictionary.

Illness might cause the same reaction.

Once, she recalls, "I actually had a fever, and then they said, `Well, before you call your mom to want to go home, I suggest you go down to the word-clearer (the person who helps students understand words) and find out if you have any problems in your study.' "

Lilly said she later enrolled in public school in Los Angeles and found she had fallen far behind. Old enough to enroll in ninth grade, she chose eighth instead.

"It was quite a shock for her to find out where she really stood," said her mother, former Scientologist and teacher Adeline Dodd- Bova. She said the staff at Delphi told students their education was far superior to what they would get in a public school.

Despite repeated attempts, Delphi Academy representatives could not be reached for comment.

* * *

Many Scientologists say they care deeply about their children's education, and they say Hubbard-method schools provide the best environment.

But former members said the church actually placed a low priority on giving its children a formal education.

Former Scientologist Michael Pilkenton used to talk to children at Hacienda Gardens, a Clearwater apartment complex that houses Scientology's staff members.

Pilkenton in 1989 was a member of the "Sea Org," or Sea Organization, the full-time Scientologists who work 12-hour days. He would ask the children whether they planned to go to college and choose a career.

He said the children told him: "You can do anything you want in college right here in the study room."

Former members say Scientology staff members believe they are saving the world, and other pursuits — such as college — often seem unimportant.

"Really for them there's no purpose for someone to be going to college anyway because what you really should be doing if you're a good Scientologist is joining that army of Sea Org people to clear the planet," Dodd-Bova said.

"Clear" [as a verb] is a term that means to deliver Scientology counseling.

* * *

Clearwater, the international spiritual headquarters for the Church of Scientology, is home to the True School, which uses the Hubbard methods. It denies being a Scientology front or teaching the religion.

The school is "not in any way connected to the Church of Scientology, they do not fund us or have any management over us," Christine Collbran, the school's vice president, said in a letter to the Times.

But it does have ties to Scientology.

School officers are listed in a local directory of Scientologists. The last executive director, Sheri Payson, left the school to work for a Scientology church in Tampa, according to a newsletter. "Child auditing," a Scientology counseling process, is offered at the True School, according to ads, although Collbran said a separate organization administers the program.

The True School is licensed by Applied Scholastics, Collbran said in a letter. According to a brochure, Applied Scholastics' trademark is owned by a group called ABLE International. The brochure says: "ABLE creates recognizable changes in society — changes that bring us that much closer to archieving the aims of Scientology."

Asked about charges that the schools are Scientology fronts, Church of Scientology spokesman Richard Haworth said: "Some people's claims don't happen to reflect reality." He said Applied Scholastics merely was exporting Hubbard's study methods — not his religion.

The True School has more than 100 students and advertises that it offers instruction for children ages 2 through high school. But state records indicate that during the past six years, it has not graduated a single student, said Patterson Lamb, who handles private school matters for the Florida Department of Education.

The True School is not accredited, which means that someone who wants to go on to college probably would have to take the GED high school equivalency test. That is not uncommon among private schools.

Asked why the school is not accredited, Collbran wrote that accreditation might force the staff to undergo "psychological or psychiatric training."

She added: "Psychologists and psychiatrists ARE the ones responsible for the drop in SAT scores and increase in rape, crime, RITALIN use and drugs in general. To us the idea of being `accredited' by these people is totally undesirable."

Scientologists also denounce psychiatry.

The Jefferson Academy, another Clearwater school marketed toward Scientologists, also is not accredited. Officials at the school declined to grant interviews.

Much less is known about the Scientology staff school, known as the Cadet School. It is at a former Quality Inn, 16432 U.S. 19 N near Largo, that the Scientologists also use to house members who have small children. The old motel also is home to a day-care center.

The Scientologists turned down a Times request to visit the school or interview pupils. Haworth said the school has about 135 students who study in six course rooms. They learn reading, writing, arithmetic and other subjects and go on a variety of field trips, he said.

"The Cadet School is far superior to a public school as there are NO drugs nor any of the drug-related violence unfortunately found in many of our public schools," he said in a written statement.

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Hubbard-method schools deny they promote Scientology, but Michael Burns disagrees.

In 1988 at the age of 21, he enrolled in the Recording Institute of Detroit, a school for record producers. Soon he was learning Hubbard educational methods and being encouraged to visit a Dianetics center affiliated with Scientology.

Eventually, Burns said, he became a Sea Org member in Clearwater. He said he worked long hours, got five or six hours of sleep each night and lived in a two-bedroom apartment with 10 roommates. He left last year and is suing Scientology.

The Recording Institute could not be reached, but Haworth denied it is a front for Scientology.

"It was a dreadful, scary, horrifying experience I am ashamed to admit to," Burns said recently. "I'd like to be able to forget it."