Applied Scholastics International, the Hollywood organization that promotes the teaching methods of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, is spreading its ideas and school textbooks through inner-city communities in a partnership with a Baptist minister from Compton.
The company has teamed up with the Rev. Alfreddie Johnson in a grass-roots campaign to bring Hubbard's "Study Technology" to church and community tutoring programs in low-income areas.
The Hubbard methods and their relationship to Scientology have come under scrutiny in recent weeks because of a proposed charter school in the Los Angeles Unified School District that would rely on the techniques.
The proposal has called into question whether the Applied Scholastics texts--which are nearing approval from the state Department of Education for use in public schools--violate the constitutional separation of church and state.
Critics of the 5-year-old campaign to build links with the inner city call it a veiled attempt to recruit members to Scientology, the controversial religion Hubbard founded in the early 1950s that has been variously criticized as a for-profit business and a cult.
Former Scientologists say one goal of the church's "social betterment" programs, such as Applied Scholastics, is to build broad acceptance for the religion and Hubbard.
Johnson runs the World Literacy Crusade, which has more than 35 chapters from South Los Angeles to South Africa that he says have been established to promote the educational program.
Applied Scholastics opened an Orange County branch in Tustin within the last few months, according to an employee there. In addition, an Applied Scholastics site on the World Wide Web describes an affiliated educational program known as the "Street Academy" in Santa Ana. That program, according to the Web site, "works with some of the toughest gang members and youth--those that schools and society at large have given up on."
Johnson, who works out of his storefront church and community center, says he is not troubled by suggestions that Applied Scholastics has greater ambitions than education.
"I'm only interested in the product, and Applied Scholastics produces responsible human beings with the ability to learn and communicate in any subject," said Johnson, who keeps copies of the Hubbard texts on bookshelves in his True Faith Christian Center.
Applied Scholastics and Johnson observe a simple philosophy: Illiteracy is at the root of social ills, from crime and drug use to poverty itself.
Applied Scholastics, which charges Johnson and the other groups from Pacoima to Miami a licensing fee to use its methods, actively promotes the crusade. It supplies volunteers to train local activists in the Hubbard techniques and has featured Johnson in one of its glossy annual reports.
Another Scientology organization that promotes Applied Scholastics, the Assn. for Better Living and Education, devoted a recent issue of its magazine, "Solutions," to Johnson's crusade, complete with testimonials from young students.
Advocates of the Hubbard techniques say they help students by removing three "barriers" to learning. Students use dictionaries to look up words they do not understand, so they fully grasp reading material; they apply their lessons to real life; and they master each rung of a lesson to obtain a thorough understanding of a subject.
The colorful books that make up the Applied Scholastics series prominently feature Hubbard's name on the front and a short biography in the back that makes no mention of him as Scientology's founder.
"These are front groups," said Robert Vaughn Young, a former national Scientology spokesman who left the church in 1989. "They are set up to get Scientology into areas where it could never go as a religion."
Church spokeswoman Gail Armstrong called Young's assertions a "mischaracterization." She said the church publicly reaches out for new members with its own programs.
"This claim that we are seeking to get new recruits through these programs is completely disingenuous," she said.
Applied Scholastics officials say the World Literacy Crusade is merely one of many educational endeavors they promote, and say the Hubbard books contain no references to any religion.
They complain that they are being singled out for criticism while organizations affiliated with other churches earn praise for working in needy communities.
"The purpose of Applied Scholastics is to help students of all ages to improve their studies. If someone can find some hidden agenda, I have not heard of it," said Rena Weinberg, a spokeswoman. "I have never been asked to take some kid who is a gang member and bring him into Scientology."
Religious scholars have mixed opinions about the inner-city campaign, seeing both altruism and opportunism.
J. Gordon Melton, author of the Encyclopedia of American Religion, has reviewed the Hubbard textbooks and calls them "purely secular." Melton said he has collected about 200 works of Scientology.