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Scientology link rouses worries at star's school

Will Smith academy is to use church founder's teaching methods.

June 29, 2008|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

In Los Angeles' rarefied world of private schools, where tuitions are high, academics are tough and educational philosophy is taken seriously, the newest member of the tribe is getting the kind of breathless attention reserved for a music or film star.

That may be because the founders of New Village Academy are themselves such stars: Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. Entertainers have long flocked to private schools on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, where campuses are comparatively small, offer a discreet environment and are close to studios.

The Smiths, however, will be among the few celebrities -- Oprah Winfrey, Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods among them -- to establish their own school or program.

It is one of several initiatives by the couple, including a new foundation that will give grants to young people in the arts and education. About 80% of New Village students will receive financial assistance in the fall.

But the school's Sept. 3 opening, on the leased campus of a former school in Calabasas, will be accompanied by a whiff of controversy. Some of its teachers are members of the Church of Scientology, and it will use teaching methods developed by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

That has provoked a slew of headlines: On FOXNews.com, "Will Smith Funds Private Scientology School"; from Britain's The Guardian, "Will Smith funds school teaching Scientology creator's study method"; and on the religion blog of the Dallas Morning News, "Is Will Smith school a front for Scientology?"

Both Smiths have said they are not Scientologists.

In a statement, Will Smith said of the school: "About 10 years ago, Jada and I started dreaming about the possibility of creating an ideal educational environment, where children could feel happy, positive and excited about learning. . . .

"New Village Academy was born of a simple question, 'Is it possible to create an educational environment in which children have fun learning?' Jada and I believe the answer is 'Yes.' "

New Village Academy began about three years ago as a home school for the Smiths' youngest children -- Jaden, 9 and Willow, 7 -- and those of several other families. After an extensive search, Jacqueline Olivier, previously an administrator at private schools in Santa Monica and La Jolla, was hired to head the school.

Since joining the school a year ago, she has been responsible for hiring staff and preparing for the opening of the new campus.

Olivier responded to written questions about the school submitted through Will Smith's publicist. She said some staff members are Scientologists and others are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. The school has no religious affiliation, she said.

"We are a secular school and just like all nonreligious independent schools, faculty and staff do not promote their own religions at school or pass on the beliefs of their particular faith to children," Olivier said.

One teaching method the school uses is study technology, which was developed by Hubbard and focuses on students gaining hands-on experience, mastering subject matter before moving to the next level, and being taught not to read past words they don't understand.

"People tend to think study technology is a subject, but it is really just the way the subject is taught," Olivier said. "They then come to the conclusion that we are teaching Scientology when actually a methodology doesn't have anything to do with content."

The school, she said, will use many philosophies, including Montessori, Bruner and Gardner. Olivier said the Smiths would pay nearly $900,000 to lease the Indian Hills High School campus in the Las Virgenes Unified School District for three years. Fall enrollment is expected to be about 40 students and will eventually rise to about 100, she said. The school will include pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, with a top annual tuition of $12,500.

The school's executive director is Jana Babatunde-Bey, who worked as general manager of Smith's Overbrook Entertainment and is currently director of philanthropy and vice president of the Smith Holdings Group, according to the school's website.

New Village plans to have nonprofit status, as well as accreditation from the California Assn. of Independent Schools, which demands strict accountability and an on-site visit by a team of educators.

The success of a new school is not guaranteed, noted association Executive Director Jim McManus. Many fail after a few years, and it remains to be seen how the Smith cachet will affect enrollment.

Olivier is a respected educator, McManus said. "I think she's really energetic, hardworking and in tune with evolving research and responsible trends in education," he said.

The New Village curriculum includes literacy and math, and subjects such as living skills, Spanish, karate, yoga, robotics, technology, etiquette and art. Parental involvement is encouraged, as is limited access to television and sugary foods.

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