What Goes on Inside Will Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith's School?

Smith, Jada Pinkett-Smith's New Village Leadership Academy stirs curiosity.

ByABC News
September 8, 2009, 4:48 PM

Sept. 11, 2009 — -- Like many modern celebrity power couples, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith are not satisfied with just being actors.

The couple, who met on the set of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" in 1995, have had a lot of different roles over the years, most recently founding the New Village Leadership Academy (NVLA), a private elementary school in Calabasas, Calif., which opened its doors this week for the start of the 2009-10 school year.

But as Oprah Winfrey famously discovered when she started The Leadership Academy School for Girls, for celebrities, getting involved in an educational venture can be a road fraught with controversy.

Coupled with the long-time "secretly Scientologist" rumors that have surrounded the Smiths, the school's opening has attracted curiosity.

While they're close friends with actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, arguably the world's most famous Scientology couple, Smith has said that he is a not a member of the church.

"I've talked to Tom about it. [There's] lots of incredible, wonderful concepts [but my wife] Jada and I don't necessarily believe in organized religion. I was raised in a Baptist household, and my grandmother would get up out of her casket [if I became a Scientologist]," Smith told the World Entertainment News Network, a news wire, in 2006.

Also creating questions are reports that tax returns for 2008 from the Smith's charitable foundation show that the couple gave a combined $122,500 in donations to groups affiliated with the Church of Scientology.The Smiths reportedly donated a total of $1.3 million to a variety of religious, civic and arts groups that year. Smith's biggest single contribution was to Yesha Ministries of Philadelphia. He gave the Christian-based organization run by the Rev. James Robinson $250,000. Another $200,000 went to a Christian ministry in Los Angeles called "Living Waters." The foundation also donated to a Los Angeles mosque, as well as the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Center and other religious groups. When asked about the donations, Will Smith's publicist, Pat Kinsley, told ABC News.com that her client doesn't comment on his philanthropic work.

In an interview with Ebony magazine earlier this year, Pinkett-Smith said that the NVLA was not tied to Scientology: "All I can say is it is not a Scientology school," she told the magazine. "Now, If you don't trust me, and you are questioning my integrity, that's a whole different matter. That is straight evil to think that I would bring families into that educational institution and then try to get them to convert into some religion."

Despite such statements, skeptics continue to raise questions about whether the Smiths have ties to Scientology, especially when it comes to the NVLA.

The suspicions stem largely from the NVLA's use of Study Technology, a teaching methodology developed by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology.

It operates under the assumption that there are three "barriers" to learning that children must identify and overcome.

Critics claim Study Technology is repackaged Scientology. One professor who has closely followed Scientology suggested the "three barriers" technique is used as a means of familiarizing children with some of the vocabulary often used in Scientology teachings, and several educators told ABCNews.com that the "three barriers" philosophy is a fundamentally flawed teaching tool.

But proponents of the method like the Smiths and Applied Scholastics, the organization founded in 1972 to make Study Tech broadly available, say it's an effective, nonreligious teaching technique.

"Study Technology is a secular methodology intended to help students better understand what is being studied and apply it to real life," Pinkett-Smith wrote in an e-mail to ABCNews.com forwarded through her publicist. "NVLA integrates this methodology as a tool in instructional design by providing teachers the framework to design lessons and curriculum."

In a March interview with National Public Radio, Pinkett-Smith spoke about the school's alleged religious ties.

"I definitely want to make it very clear to everybody that the educational institution that we have, the school that Will and I have, is not a Scientology school ... it is not a desire of ours to educate children with Scientology, that is not what Will and I want to do. And our school is not, and I repeat, not a Scientology school."

The most ardent critic of Study Technology says he doesn't buy all the denials. Dave S. Touretzky, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, created a Web site that dissects Study Tech and asserts that it is the Scientology religion disguised as education.

Touretzky said he became focused on Scientology after the group threatened to sue Carnegie Mellon and himself after he posted a secret document revealing what he called the organization's "creation myth."

"I can't say it [the school] is a Scientology church," he told ABCNews.com. "What they seem to have is some sort of a hybrid. Scientology repackaged for the Hollywood crowd. It's hitting all the politically correct elements ... but snuck in there is this Scientology stuff."

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, Karin Pouw, would not comment on whether there was a relationship between Scientology and the NVLA. She referred all questions back to the school.

Other educators worry less about Study Technology's ties to Scientology and more about its overall effectiveness.

"I look at the Study Tech ideas and it doesn't seem sound educationally," said Jim McManus, executive director of the California Association of Independent Schools. He spent 14 years as an education consultant for independent schools around the country and says he has no personal animosity toward Scientology.

Dan Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who has a background as a cognitive scientist and wrote the book "Why Don't Students Like School," has similar doubts about Study Technology's merits and says it is based on flawed theories.

"It's perfectly possible that the methodology is based on ridiculous principles and that something effective is happening in the classroom, but ridiculous principles certainly lowers that possibility," Willingham said.