DUNEDIN — One Friday afternoon in December, leaders of a tax-funded elementary school called Life Force Arts and Technology Academy shepherded students into a Scientology church in Tampa's Ybor Square.
The children were fed candy and pizza, given Scientology books and DVDs, and shown a performance of a play written by Scientology's late founder, L. Ron Hubbard. Some posed for photos with Santa Claus in front of a silver Scientology cross.
It was, as Life Force leaders had promised, a Christmas party, the school's first since a small Clearwater company called Art of Management had been hired to reorganize the school as it filed for bankruptcy.
Though company president Hanan Islam was also executive director of the World Literacy Crusade, a California organization that promotes Scientology study methods, she had reassured parents then that her group would "not push any religion" at the school.
But as Life Force parents stood in one of Scientology's newest churches, dedicated last year by Scientology's worldwide leader, David Miscavige, some felt their trust had been betrayed.
Some parents and former teachers at Life Force, which receives about $800,000 a year in public funding, say the Pinellas County charter school has become a Scientology recruiting post targeting children.
Opened to serve a low-income Clearwater neighborhood and advertising classes in computers and modern dance, Life Force had begun pushing Hubbard's "study technology," which critics call a Trojan horse Scientology uses to infiltrate public classrooms.
And while Life Force students and teachers worked in poorly stocked classrooms and teachers went unpaid, the bankrupt school funneled tens of thousands of dollars more to Islam's business interests than she told the bankruptcy court she would charge.
"There can be no accountability when this kind of stuff goes on," said teacher Tim Roach, who said he was fired from Life Force last month after criticizing the school. "It's the students who are going to suffer."
Though mixing public education with religious doctrine is not allowed by the Pinellas County School District, which oversees charter schools, the district has been stymied in attempts to close Life Force because it is under bankruptcy protection.
In response to questions from the Tampa Bay Times submitted over the last two months, Islam and Louis Muhammad, who chairs the school's board of directors, responded with brief email statements calling the Life Force reorganization an unquestionable success.
"This is the real story and needs to be told," Muhammad wrote. "We are making a charter school work."
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Islam told the Times in July that she wanted to "save the school" using the World Literacy Crusade's experience in setting up "programs in churches and schools" worldwide. "There are no intentions of taking over," she said.
But as the 2011-2012 school year began for about 95 students in August, Islam and other Life Force administrators began insisting on the use of Hubbard's "study tech" in the classroom, former teachers said.
Every teacher was given Learning How to Learn, an illustrated children's book and starter's guide to study tech that includes a biography of Hubbard. Teachers also were trained in Smart Way, a phonics program designed by Scientologists.
One teacher took photos of white boxes stacked in the principal's office labeled "L. Ron Hubbard Books."
Teachers were required to attend training sessions at Scientology's flagship resort in downtown Clearwater, the Fort Harrison Hotel.
Islam posted pictures online with a caption saying teachers were "trained on the barriers to study," a Hubbard study tech fundamental. Teachers were taught extensively about one study tech solution, "word clearing," in which fatigued or frustrated students must trace back their problem to a "misunderstood word."
Though teachers believed their students' struggles often stemmed from broken homes or social problems in their neighborhood, they were taught to point troubled students to a dictionary.
"The only reason a person gives up a study or becomes confused," Learning How to Learn states, "is because he has gone past a word that was not understood."
Teachers who questioned study tech were told they had no choice but to implement it. Fifth-grade teacher Jason Lowe, who was fired in January, said Life Force director of operations Vikki Williams told him, " 'We are a study tech school,' and that if any of us had a problem with it, we had to get over it."
Three teachers said they were terminated last month without explanation. Lowe said he was fired because school leaders suspected he spoke with the Times. Several parents and teachers who talked with the Times were reluctant to be quoted because they feared retribution.
Study tech combines common educational concepts like hands-on learning and word comprehension with what Hubbard defined as "barriers of study" and their manifested responses. "The real things or the objects that you study about are called mass," explains Learning How to Learn. Studying something without having the "mass" of it could make a student "feel squashed" or "sort of spinny," the book states. To get past that barrier, the student might be instructed to craft the idea with clay.
Supporters of study tech say the methodology is effective with struggling students. Academic critics say, however, that it hasn't withstood enough peer review.
Representatives from Applied Scholastics, a nonprofit founded by Scientologists to promote study tech, defend the methodology as secular and appropriate for public education. According to online writings, their interest is not in Hubbard as Scientology's founder but as "one of the most prolific and successful wordsmiths of all time."
But study tech's controversial links to Scientology have generally kept the program out of public schools. The Florida Department of Education has approved Applied Scholastics as a supplemental educational services provider, but schools and school districts in Georgia; San Antonio, Texas; St. Louis; Nevada and Toronto have backed away from study tech after complaints from teachers and parents.
Greg Blunt, whose 11-year-old daughter, Ta'Shannia, was one of Life Force's first students in 2009, removed her from the school last month because of what he called Scientology's "takeover" of the school — something the church denies.
School administrators, Blunt said, have long lied to parents about the church's involvement. When Ta'Shannia returned home from the Ybor Christmas party with The Carnival of Death, one of Hubbard's pulp-fiction books, he burned it.
"Everyone knows the easiest way is through a child," said Blunt, who has some convictions for nonviolent crimes. "Here, little girl, have some candy. Here, little boy, have some books to read. … Kids are kids. They're impressionable. If you can get through to the kids, trust me, you can rule the world."
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Opened in 2009 in Clearwater, Life Force was slated to offer art-heavy classes to the predominately black and low-income children of that city's North Greenwood neighborhood. Like other charter schools, it would be run by its own board of directors but funded by tax dollars.
Yet by summer 2011, audits show, Life Force was in a state of "financial emergency," with more than $400,000 in debts. The school's first principal was fired, charged with stealing from a family trust.
Seeking a savior, the Life Force board signed a contract with Islam's Art of Management company. In a court declaration, Islam boasted of being a "dynamic leader" who was skilled at winning government contracts and had tripled the World Literacy Crusade's annual income.
Calling herself "Dr. Hanan," Islam also said she was a naturopathic physician with two doctorates and a master's degree from Rochville University and the Eden Institute. Rochville is an online school the Washington Post called "a diploma mill." No university named "Eden Institute" could be found by the Times.
Though she touted her successes as executive director of the World Literacy Crusade beginning in 1998, the organization has had its troubles. Tax records show the Crusade's 2007 revenues of more than $270,000 had been cut in half by 2010.
And in 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported, 100 protesters marched outside the Crusade's Compton, Calif., headquarters, claiming the group had sold free government-issued Section 8 housing vouchers for $1,500 each — vouchers that turned out to be phony.
After she was hired by Life Force, Islam helped appoint new members to the school's board of directors, said former Life Force board chairman Maurice Mickens. Tapped as board chairman was Louis Muhammad, a Nation of Islam student minister who is called "Brother Louis."
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Islam and Muhammad were joined in leading Life Force by the founder of the World Literacy Crusade, the Rev. Alfreddie Johnson. He flew in from California in October to give the keynote speech at a Life Force fundraiser at the Fort Harrison Hotel. That month, Life Force bankruptcy filings show, the school paid the Crusade more than $15,000.
Johnson is a regular speaker at Scientology events and a longtime proponent of Hubbard study tech. In 2006 he was the speaker for Scientology's Ebony Awakening Awards at the Fort Harrison Hotel, where he told the Times of a plan to train Nation of Islam members to administer study tech.
A black separatist movement, the Nation of Islam has promoted education and training initiatives aimed at black empowerment and self-improvement, but critics say the movement is a racist hate group. Louis Farrakhan, its outspoken leader, once proclaimed "Hitler was a very great man."
Johnson, who has called Farrakhan "God's man on the scene," was called "the liaison between the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Islam" last October by the Nation's official newspaper, The Final Call.
Johnson helped sell Farrakhan on Hubbard's ideas, and in recent years Farrakhan has pushed Nation of Islam followers to embrace Scientology. In April, The Final Call reported Johnson was helping Farrakhan "to deliver the technology of Scientology to the Nation."
The Final Call reported last year that 4,000 Nation of Islam members were involved in study or training courses based on Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, Hubbard's seminal bestseller. Nearly 700 Nation members have been certified as Hubbard Dianetics auditors.
Johnson did not return messages left by the Times last week.
Scientology spokeswoman Pat Harney said the Church of Scientology's contributions to Life Force have been merely a way to support a school in need.
"Our only interest is as a member of the community," Harney said. "The Church of Scientology would like to see any organization that is helping children do well."
In an email, Islam defended the "many religions" involved in her work and said she does not discriminate based on religious beliefs.
"I make it my business to associate with anyone," Islam wrote, "actively working to benefit mankind."
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Even after the school filed for bankruptcy protection in July, Islam's work at the Life Force academy proved lucrative for her business interests.
Life Force paid the World Literacy Crusade more than $33,000 in September and October, bankruptcy court filings show, though they do not detail what that money bought. Islam's management company was paid more than $56,000 in the three months after the school's bankruptcy — nearly double the rate Islam told the courts she would charge the school.
While public education funds streamed out of the school, former teachers said the educational environment at Life Force declined.
The "arts and technology academy," which had promised parents their children would have access to Kindles and laptop computers, instead provided only a small lab with two working computers. Music, science and art classes were nearly nonexistent.
Teachers and parents began resorting to unorthodox means to keep the school afloat. When the school stopped paying for bus service, former teachers said, parents and teachers carpooled. After administrators denied requests for classroom materials like paper, pencils and textbooks, teachers wrote to parents asking for help with supplies.
Some teachers resorted to buying their own supplies, downloading free online curriculum sets, and copying whole workbooks and teachers' guides, former teachers said. Paid $85 a day before taxes, without benefits or sick days, some teachers waited months to receive their paychecks.
The desperate measures to keep the school funded took a bizarre and potentially dangerous turn just before Thanksgiving, when a Life Force parent went into two empty buildings beside the Dunedin school and ripped out copper wire, doors, sinks and air-conditioning units.
According to a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy's report, Islam told school leaders the owner of the closed Fenway Hotel, a historic structure next to the school building, had agreed to let the school sell scrap metal from the Fenway's old staff quarters and carriage house. Principal Lenor Johnson asked the parent to help.
But when deputies arrived, they learned Fenway owner George Rahdert, a lawyer who represents the Times, had never consented to the demolition. No one was arrested, but repairs were estimated to cost more than $15,000. An entire fire-sprinkler system had been dismantled.
"What kind of school," Rahdert asked, "is going to create a fire hazard right next to where little kids are playing?"
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One morning in November, a Pinellas County schools employee saw two young boys sitting in the Life Force lobby. Near them stood the school custodian, holding a wringer bucket and an industrial-sized mop.
The boys, the employee told school district officials, had gotten in trouble. For punishment they were to work alongside the school custodian. One boy would mop the floors; the other, scrub a bathroom.
Williams, Life Force's director of operations, told the school district this was ordinary practice at Life Force. Student discipline entailed forfeiting recess for "work detail."
Dot Clark, the school district's coordinator of partnership schools, told Life Force administrators that forcing young children to clean bathrooms was "inappropriate, unhealthy and a possible safety concern."
But Islam defended the practice. "We have found in many programs," Islam wrote to Clark, "having children contribute to the cleanliness of their environment (can) enhance their level of ownership and build their self-esteem."
Later that day, Life Force board chairman Muhammad said he talked to Islam about the work detail's "age-appropriateness." Principal Johnson then wrote to Clark that the discipline would "stop immediately."
The punishment mirrors the approach of the Church of Scientology's Rehabilitation Project Force, where staffers in the Sea Org, Scientology's religious order, are forced to perform menial labor to redeem themselves for what the church considers transgressions.
Life Force's academic performance also has been questioned. The school failed to achieve four of the six goals it reported to the Pinellas County School District in its last evaluation, including increasing scores on the SAT and reading FCAT, enrolling students in a book club, obtaining library cards, and distributing a parent survey. The school did meet two of its goals for FCAT math scores: About 60 percent of third- and fourth-grade students received a passing grade.
The Pinellas district, which is required by state law to monitor and evaluate charter schools, was making plans last summer to shut down Life Force but was prevented from doing so when the school filed for bankruptcy reorganization, Clark told the Times. The next hearing in bankruptcy court is scheduled for April.
Last month Life Force administrators asked the school district to drastically change the school's charter and rename it SMART Academy ("Science, Math, Arts, Reading and Technology"). Superintendent John Stewart will discuss that request at a School Board meeting next month.
The school continues to advertise. In December, fliers displaying the World Literacy Crusade's logo invited the public to Scientologists' yearly Winter Wonderland in downtown Clearwater and offered free gifts to newly enrolled Life Force students.
The school posted a promotional ad last month on YouTube from Gary Ravenscroft, a Scientologist documentarian whose film, The Truth About Drugs, was produced by an antidrug group funded by Scientology. And this month, the school was promoted under its unauthorized new name in automated phone calls voiced by Crusade founder Alfreddie Johnson.
On the phone he promised the school could secure for children a "bright future." Parents said they sought out Life Force because they wanted exactly that. Touted as an advanced and secular public school in a poor neighborhood with few opportunities, the school, parents had thought, could be the start of a better life for their children.
But after months of questionable lessons and evasions, some parents and former teachers were convinced their public school had become a vehicle for something other than education, with their children as unwitting recruits.
On the first day of school after the Scientology-hosted Christmas party, a soft-spoken fourth-grade girl raised in a Baptist household stopped her teacher, Tim Roach, during class. She had a question.
"Mr. Roach," she said, "what is Scientology?"
Times researcher Natal Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Write letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.