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.
"For those who run Applied Scholastics, I think it's a perfectly honest attempt to help people," said Melton, who is a research specialist in the religious studies department at UC Santa Barbara. "I think among the higher-ups in the Church of Scientology, those at a strategic level, they see this as a way of indirectly spreading Scientology by building the reputation of their leader."
Church spokeswoman Armstrong said that Scientologists proudly take part in Applied Scholastics campaigns and that any resulting community goodwill is a "natural byproduct," not a goal, of the programs.
Clearly, Applied Scholastics has managed to generate goodwill with Johnson and his followers.
Johnson says that Applied Scholastics has never pressed anyone at his church to study Scientology, and that none of the 700 people who have used the techniques follow the religion.
Johnson acknowledges that the "nonreligious" methods may engender skepticism from outsiders, but he sees them as a means to improve lives.
"The power to become a fireman or a doctor or a scientist is bound up in concepts, which are bound up in words," he said.
Johnson co-founded the Compton Literacy Project with another minister, Frederick Shaw Jr., shortly after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. Johnson learned about the Hubbard methods at an Applied Scholastics meeting at Shaw's home. Shaw is the son of Compton City Councilwoman Marcine Shaw, whose late husband was a Scientologist.
At the time, Johnson was running a community program in Compton offering young men counseling and other services. He recalled hearing about the idea of clearing up misunderstood words--one key to the Hubbard methods--and being immediately impressed by its potential for teaching literacy.
"The light went off," said Johnson, who subsequently moved the headquarters of his community center to Lynwood. "It's what I was looking for. This was what I needed for my boys."
Shaw has even taken a handful of classes given by Scientologists.
"I love Scientologists," he said. "They are wonderful people."
Johnson says he employs other literacy tools, such as a phonics program.
Students of the Hubbard methods at the center say it has transformed their lives.
Ronnie Brown, who spent 13 years in various jails for drug-related offenses and at one point lost custody of his three young children, says the "study tech" helped him improve his reading level and taught him how to focus on his work.
"A lot of times we give up on learning, thinking there's something wrong with us, that we're dumb or we can't get it," said Brown, 40. "After completing this course, I understand that there are certain barriers to learning."
Now Brown is working at the center and says he has regained custody of his three children. Making progress on his scholastics also has brought realizations about his personal life.
"The tech gave me the ability to understand why I used drugs," he said. "It was because of my ignorance and the pain and hurt within me."
Such stories of success have won Johnson's World Literacy Crusade recognition from local officials in Compton, where the City Council earlier this year declared Jan. 18 "World Literacy Crusade Day" in honor of the organization's five-year anniversary.
Compton Councilwoman Shaw says the methods can break the cycle of violence in her community.
"The only way to do it is to make a person literate so they can become self-sustaining," said Shaw, who is a Baptist.
The Rev. Joseph Peay, who began using the Hubbard methods earlier this month at his Praise Sanctuary in the Crenshaw district, shares the enthusiasm.
Peay says that he was initially reluctant to embrace the methods because of the link to Hubbard, but that fellow ministers encouraged him to try the techniques, thinking they might provide a new and valuable educational tool. He reviewed the materials and says he found nothing religious in them. An Applied Scholastics volunteer came to the church in recent months and trained six of his parishioners, who in turn are now tutoring about 12 students.
Peay says that one of his tutors' children, a 5-year-old boy, came to his office recently to show how he could read the Bible--in part because of listening to the Applied Scholastics training. Peay had the boy read the same passages aloud to his congregation at a subsequent Sunday church service.
The minister and members of his parish plan to walk door-to-door in their neighborhood next week to attract more students.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this particular course of instruction can remedy the educational deficiencies in South-Central Los Angeles," Peay said.
Peay says there is an added benefit to the instruction: It is helping his congregants gain a deeper appreciation of their own religion.
"This program has made me realize that when the Gospel is being preached, people don't understand because they don't understand the words," he said. "And if they don't understand, how can they be saved?"
Times staff writer Nick Anderson contributed to this report.