Thursday, June 21, 2018
Education

Pinellas school superintendent wants Scientology-tied charter school closed

DUNEDIN — Pinellas school district officials said Wednesday they will try to close the Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, a charter elementary school criticized by parents and former teachers for using Scientology study methods.

Life Force could become the first Pinellas school to have its charter terminated.

A memo by Pinellas County schools superintendent John Stewart urges the School Board to issue a 90-day notice of termination to Life Force and criticizes its budget, discipline system and leadership.

The school's curriculum, Stewart notes, was changed "without permission" from district officials. He adds that the school also has been operating under an unauthorized new name, the SMART Academy, since last month.

The Tampa Bay Times reported Sunday that Life Force administrators forced students to learn "study technology," a teaching methodology devised by the Church of Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

Leaders of the school, which has filed for bankruptcy, also took students on a field trip to a Scientology church in Ybor City and funneled money to the World Literacy Crusade, a group that promotes Hubbard's "study tech."

If the School Board agrees at its Tuesday meeting to issue the notice of termination, Life Force leaders could defend their charter before the board at two public hearings. If the School Board still wants to terminate the charter, Life Force could appeal to the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

The School Board, which is required by state law to monitor charter schools, has not terminated a charter in the 15-year history of Pinellas charter schools. In 2010, the board voted against renewing the contract for Life Skills Center, a failing charter school in St. Petersburg.

Charter schools receive tax dollars but are operated by their own nonprofit boards of directors.

Life Force leaders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last summer, giving the school protection as it attempted to reorganize. But when school leaders sought to amend the school's charter, a bankruptcy judge gave the school district an opening to pursue termination.

District officials would need to again seek the bankruptcy judge's approval before completing the termination, said school district attorney Jim Robinson.

Life Force board chairman Louis Muhammad declined to comment Wednesday. Messages left with Hanan Islam, the president of a private company that manages the school, and school principal Lenor Johnson were not returned.

Stewart, the Pinellas superintendent, was not available for an interview Wednesday.

If Life Force's charter is terminated, district officials will assume control of all furniture, supplies, funds and student records. District partnership schools coordinator Dot Clark said the district would help parents enroll their children in a local public or charter school.

On Tuesday, Stewart and his staff recommended the school board reject Life Force's request for an amended charter, which would keep the school open into 2016. The school's current charter was approved in 2008 and expires next year.

In an evaluation of Life Force, district officials questioned the school's treatment of its faculty. Teachers there are paid $85 a day — the same rate paid to substitute teachers in Pinellas public schools — and are not given benefits or contracts.

One teacher said he was fired because administrators believed he had spoken with the Times. Two other teachers who were fired recently said they were given no explanation.

District officials also expressed doubt that the Life Force board of directors, which has had frequent turnover, is really in charge of the school. Board members tasked with overseeing Islam's management rarely responded to district requests for information. Most communication came from Islam.

"Their evasiveness and deception has made them very difficult to work with," Clark said. "Very disappointing, very sad."

Former teachers said Islam, who is also the executive director of the World Literacy Crusade, led the introduction of Hubbard's ideas into the school in the wake of its bankruptcy. She also moved school events such as fundraisers and teacher training to Church of Scientology facilities and brought in prominent voices from the Nation of Islam.

Last June, Islam joined World Literacy Crusade founder Alfreddie Johnson, Nation of Islam minister Tony Muhammad and Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney as speakers at Scientology's "2nd Annual Clear African Americans Convention," held at the Church of Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater.

Johnson and Muhammad spoke on "How to Become a Powerful Disseminator." Harney spoke on "How to Talk to your Family & Friends about Scientology." Islam's speech came in the middle and was titled, "Taking the Tech to the Hood."

Life Force draws most of its students from Clearwater's low-income North Greenwood neighborhood.

The original founders of the Life Force charter school have distanced themselves from it.

The Life Force Cultural Arts Academy, a nonprofit offering cultural programming like African dance classes and the Chocolate Nutcracker, posted on its website that it is not affiliated with the charter school.

Jai Hinson, that group's executive director and a founder of the Life Force charter school, said she is "extremely disappointed and appalled" at the direction the charter school took after she helped found it in 2009.

Thinking the charter school would continue with its original focus on the arts, she resigned in 2010, six months after the school opened — before it filed for bankruptcy and hired Islam's company, Art of Management, to reorganize the school. Hinson worries the school will tarnish her Cultural Arts Academy's good name.

"The stuff they're doing is nothing to be proud of," Hinson said. "They need to close it down."

English Bradshaw, a Tampa charter school consultant who helped Hinson develop the original school charter, assailed Life Force's former board chairman Maurice Mickens in an email Monday, public records show.

Bradshaw said he was "deeply disturbed" with the school representatives who have been "involved with its demise" and added that he would do everything in his power to encourage the school's termination.

"I created this Frankenstein," he wrote. "Now I will do my level best to destroy it."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or [email protected] Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

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