Inside Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Scientology School

·17-min read
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

There was some healing that needed to happen. And so, in October 2018, Hollywood superstar Will Smith joined his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, for a special two-part episode of her Facebook Watch series Red Table Talk.

One year prior, The Daily Beast had published an interview with Leah Remini, the ex-Scientologist turned whistleblower who alleged that Pinkett Smith was a devoted practitioner of Scientology—a costly endeavor (reaching its highest “Operating Thetan” levels can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) that comprises tales of intergalactic overlords, dead alien souls, “body thetans,” and the curious theory that humans evolved from clams.

“I know Jada’s in. I know Jada’s in. She’s been in Scientology a long time,” Remini told me. “I never saw Will [Smith] there, but I saw Jada at the Celebrity Centre. They opened up a Scientology school, and have since closed it. But Jada, I had seen her at the Scientology Celebrity Centre all the time.”

Remini was referring to the Scientology Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, California, where its handful of famous acolytes take courses along the “Bridge to Total Freedom.” The King of Queens star’s claim prompted Will to clear the air.

“All right, so hold on—let’s clear some rumors, just to have it on record,” offered Will that day on Red Table Talk. “We’ve never been Scientologists, we’ve never been swingers.”

A little over a week ago, the couple confessed—in terribly awkward fashion—that the “swingers” portion of that statement was misleading at best. As for the “Scientologists” part, well, that doesn’t appear to be entirely true either. (The Smiths and the Church of Scientology did not respond to numerous requests for comment.)

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According to Tony Ortega, the world’s leading Scientology reporter and publisher of The Underground Bunker, while the Smiths aren’t currently involved with the controversial religion, Pinkett Smith has “definitely been misleading about her past involvement” in Scientology. “I talked to close friends of Will Smith who said he was a ‘dabbler’ who dabbled in everything, and that Jada was the hardcore Scientologist.”

And nowhere was that influence more apparent than at the New Village Leadership Academy, the Smiths’ mysterious private school in tony Calabasas, California, that opened its doors in 2008 before quietly closing in 2013.

The Daily Beast spoke to four former teachers and administrators at the New Village Leadership Academy who insist that Scientology not only bled into every aspect of the school but that it was “essentially a Scientology school,” filled with mostly Scientologist-teachers that taught students Scientology methods of learning.

The New Village Leadership Academy began as a home school in one of the Smiths’ unused residences in Indian Hills, California.

“Will and Jada gathered 20, 30 kids—including their kids, Jaden and Willow—in their old home. It was a big house where they had several rooms, almost like a Montessori,” says Mariappan Jawaharlal, Ph.D., who goes by the nickname “Jawa.”

Jawaharlal, who currently serves as an engineering professor at California State University, Sacramento, is one of the leading robotics instructors in the country, and was recruited by Jacqueline Olivier to be a guest-lecturer for the Smiths’ budding school. Olivier had previously run the Gillispie School in La Jolla, California, and was hired by the Smiths to help found and oversee the New Village Leadership Academy.

“They never mentioned Scientology,” Olivier tells me. “But I remember they sent me the L. Ron Hubbard books [the founder of Scientology], and I didn’t put it together. It just seemed like a great opportunity.”

There were other signs. Olivier says she soon discovered that all of the teachers in the Smiths’ home were Scientologists, and remembers Pinkett Smith ordering her to take classes in “study technology”—a dubious teaching method developed by Hubbard that is foundational to Scientology.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Will and Jada Pinkett Smith's New Village Leadership Academy.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Alamy</div>

Will and Jada Pinkett Smith's New Village Leadership Academy.

Alamy

The New Village Leadership Academy’s website, which has since been removed, did not contain any mention of Scientology but did provide an explainer of study technology, which it described as: “An educational model developed by L R Hubbard, study technology focuses on three principles. First is the use of ‘mass’ (manipulatives and hands-on experiences) to foster understanding—children need to see and feel what they are learning about. Second is the attention to the ‘gradient,’ which ensures students master one level before moving on to the next. Third is the ‘misunderstood word,’ in which students master word definitions and are taught not to read past words they don’t know the meanings of in order to understand completely what they are reading and learning. NVA uses study technology as an umbrella methodology woven through the subjects.” (The practice of understanding the “misunderstood word” is known as “word clearing.”)

“Will would say, ‘It has to be 100 percent study technology.’ And I later learned that you couldn’t have it less than that, because it’s a holy thing,” says Olivier. “And Jada said, ‘If you’re the person in charge of the school then you need to be the person who knows the most about study technology, so we need you to take these courses.’”

Olivier says she and other teachers were made to take courses at Scientology’s Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, California, and also at Applied Scholastics, a Scientology-affiliated group that promotes study technology.

“We all went to Applied Scholastics,” says Olivier. “They have all these front companies that you only realize later are Scientology.”

“I had to go down to the Celebrity Centre and do stuff with the E-meter, and Jada was always at the Celebrity Centre,” she continues. “My feeling is that Jada was really into [Scientology] and Will was sort of whatever… but he took all the courses too.”

But Olivier says that Smith was pressured to downplay—at least publicly—his involvement in the Church of Scientology. She recalls attending a meeting at the Smiths’ home wherein James Lassiter, who runs Smith’s production shingle Overbrook Entertainment, warned Smith, “Don’t let this Scientology shit get in the way of Hancock”—Overbrook’s big 2008 summer movie release starring Smith as a slovenly superhero. (Lassiter did not respond to requests for comment.)

The 2008 tax returns for the Smiths’ charitable foundation, the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation, showed that the pair gave a total of $122,500 to Scientology groups, including Applied Scholastics and its umbrella organization, the Association for Better Living and Education (ABLE).

“I was naïve about it,” offers Olivier. “I take things at face value and believe people—and they’re actors. And that’s how they lured people into Scientology.”

In 2008, the Smiths paid $890,000 for a three-year lease to a building that formerly housed Indian Hills High School—a place best known for educating five of the seven members of the “Bling Ring,” a gang of teens who robbed celebrity homes in Calabasas.

And Olivier was admittedly excited at the prospect of helping found a school that provided educational opportunities for underprivileged kids, from pre-K to sixth grade.

“I really wanted to start a school, and was very into social justice and diversity, giving opportunities to kids,” explains Oliver, noting that 80 percent of the students at New Village Leadership Academy received some form of financial aid, and most of the student body was Black.

Plus, both privately and publicly, the Smiths repeatedly maintained that New Village Leadership Academy was a secular, non-religious school that merely employed study technology.

“All I can say is it is not a Scientology school,” Pinkett Smith told Ebony magazine in 2009. “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.”

Former teachers and administrators who spoke to The Daily Beast dispute this characterization.

“They had this course supervisor who had her own Scientology charges, and so I hired a bunch of people who weren’t Scientologists,” says Olivier. “Everyone else there were Scientologists.”

She adds, “There were pictures of L. Ron Hubbard on the walls. And in the study technology book, there was a picture of [Hubbard] and a whole mini-biography of his life, and that was the first thing [kids] had to word clear—before anything. I mean, it was total Scientology. There’s no question.”

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Jawaharlal, who guest-lectured at the school from 2008 to 2010, also says he observed posters of Hubbard on the walls, and that most of New Village Leadership Academy teachers were Scientologists.

“Yes, there were posters on the wall. I didn’t even know who that was!” says Jawaharlal. “There were teachers there who were constantly talking about building materials into the curriculum that were related to Scientology. There were teachers there that I met and I couldn’t even understand what they were saying. There was a geography teacher there, and I’m pretty well-versed in geography, but they were saying this vague stuff. There seemed to be an agenda. I mean, I’d sit in on classes and listen to these teachers and they were using weird words that I didn’t even know.”

Olivier alleges that, in addition to study technology, the New Village Leadership Academy was implementing a number of other Scientology practices, including the “Tone Scale,” charting and analyzing a person’s emotion; the “Qualifications Division” or “Qual,” which verifies results and corrects wrongs; “Debugging,” or breaking down one’s barriers. It would also label people as “Suppressive Persons,” or those who, in the words of Hubbard, seek “to suppress, or squash, any betterment activity or group.”

Leah Remini and Mike Rinder, two former high-ranking Scientologists (Rinder was their ex-spokesman and senior executive) who’ve rededicated themselves to exposing the Church of Scientology’s alleged abuses, say that study technology is a back-door way of getting people into Scientology.

“L. Ron Hubbard’s study technology is a means of infiltrating areas of society: governments, schools, politics. This is pursuant to Hubbard’s policies on ‘allying’ organizations and groups to legitimize Scientology, and also as a first step in getting more of his ‘technology’ into use,” Remini and Rinder told me in a statement. “The concept is that if you can get someone to use one bit of the ‘tech’ they will be so impressed by it that they will want to find out more of his ‘tech.’ This is covered extensively by Hubbard in his ‘Public Relations’ policies, especially in one he titled, ‘The Public Image.’ And so you know, he directed that his ‘study tech’ be ‘secularized’ so it could be introduced to government agencies and public schools without running afoul of the separation of church and state doctrine in the U.S.—and so the front organizations established to do this (in this case, Applied Scholastics International) would be able to get government grants.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Scientologist Tom Cruise attends the grand opening of Applied Scholastics International's new headquarters on July 26, 2003, in St.Louis, Missouri. Applied Scholastics is a Scientology-affiliated group.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Mark Mainz/Getty</div>

Scientologist Tom Cruise attends the grand opening of Applied Scholastics International's new headquarters on July 26, 2003, in St.Louis, Missouri. Applied Scholastics is a Scientology-affiliated group.

Mark Mainz/Getty

Indeed, Hubbard once wrote that study technology is Scientology’s “primary bridge to society.” In the U.S. it is practiced in the Delphi Schools, a number of private schools across the country which have managed to get study technology approved by regulators by claiming it is a nondenominational “supplementary text.”

“Scientologists who don’t want to come right out and say they are (or were) Scientologists usually downplay their association by saying things like: ‘We think L. Ron Hubbard’s technology on how to study and learn is something we found very helpful’ to avoid having to answer directly about their involvement in Scientology,” Remini and Rinder conclude.

Plus, Olivier claims many of the young students at New Village Leadership Academy were said to be frustrated by the limitations placed on their learning through study technology.

According to former teachers and administrators, there was a “culture clash” between the non-Scientologist teachers hired by Olivier, who were reluctant to employ study technology, and the Scientologist ones appointed by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.

“There was instant clashing, because you can’t use study technology with kids. We had about 65 kids there [at New Village Leadership Academy], and every time a kid yawned they said it was a ‘misunderstood word.’”

This concept of “word clearing,” or deciphering the “misunderstood word,” is the most important “barrier to study” of Hubbard’s study technology.

“The ‘misunderstood word’ is the one that has most emphasis placed on it in Scientology. Hubbard claimed that going past a misunderstood word (abbreviated, like many things in Scientology as ‘M/U’ or ‘MU’) would result in the subsequent words or sentences being ‘blank.’ You would become tired or yawn,” explains Rinder. “When you come across a word you don’t understand you are supposed to look it up in a dictionary and understand every definition and the derivation of the word. You take each definition and ensure you understand all the words in it and if not, look those up. You then make sentences using the word to ensure you fully understand the meaning. It is a laborious process.”

Olivier recalls being constantly approached by young kids at New Village Leadership Academy who were frustrated by its “word clearing” exercises.

“One kid came to me and she’d found this article about cats yawning, and she said, ‘Yawning is involuntary! It doesn’t mean we have a misunderstood word.’ I was like, yeah. And that was considered heresy, agreeing with her,” says Olivier.

“It was more like a babysitting exercise—since the kids weren’t listening, and there was no structured curriculum,” adds Jawaharlal. “You need to have some direction. A 7-year-old doesn’t know what’s right or what’s wrong. It wasn’t a rigorous program. In the name of ‘creativity,’ they were just letting the kids do whatever they want. But the principal [Olivier] was really trying hard.”

The school opened its doors in August of 2008; by November, Olivier began voicing her issues with study technology to the Smiths.

“I said to Jada, ‘It’s stopping and starting. They can’t move forward and everything is bogged down.’ They would have fifth graders reading second-grade material—just one paragraph, because they would stop at every word,” says Olivier. “And in math, you couldn’t even do 2+2 until you understood the word ‘plus’ and ‘equal,’ and I understand knowing your vocabulary, but then they had the kids ‘clear’ every word in the math glossary before they even did any math! How can you understand what the word ‘averaging’ means before you’ve even learned averaging?”

“And then it was like, Crap… what did I get myself into?

Plus, as Olivier tells it, parents began catching wind of the Scientology teachings at New Village Leadership Academy and pulling their kids from the school.

“There were a few parents who really got vocal, and were like, ‘This is Scientology!’ and then their kids left the school,” says Olivier. “[Will & Jada] just didn’t understand that nobody wants to go to a Scientology school—especially when you’re not admitting that that’s what it is.”

The problems proved insurmountable for Olivier, who left the school at the end of her first year. At the time, the Smiths insisted that it had nothing to do with the school’s Scientology teachings, with their rep claiming, “Jacquie is no longer at the school for reasons entirely unrelated to curriculum. She is an excellent educator and fully embraced the school’s secular and open-minded approach to innovative teaching methodologies.”

Olivier says this was not the case.

“They started seeing me as not on board [with Scientology]. They would constantly say, ‘Are you sure you’re on board?’” says Olivier. “We would have these meetings with Will where they’d bring in these big guys from Scientology.”

Jawaharlal backs Olivier’s version of events. “All I knew was that it was related to Scientology, that she didn’t have the full authority to run the school, and that [Olivier] resisted the school’s Scientology curriculum,” he says.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes pose at a luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel on February 21, 2008, in Beverly Hills, California.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Charley Gallay/Getty</div>

Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes pose at a luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hotel on February 21, 2008, in Beverly Hills, California.

Charley Gallay/Getty

The Smiths subsequently hired Piano Foster (who also goes by Franca Campopiano), the wife of their trainer, to run the school. Foster was a Scientologist. (Foster did not respond to requests for comment.)

“The new principal, I don’t think she knew what she was doing,” says Jawaharlal. “I think she was part of their strategy.”

Queenie Johnson, who taught at the New Village Leadership Academy from 2009-2013—and is not a Scientologist herself—says that the school began gradually “phasing out” its Scientology practices as the years progressed. (Others dispute this claim.)

“The school always talked about ‘clearing’ words and things like that. That was something that helped [Jada] and her child initially. The idea that a kid understands a word, that is a very helpful teaching concept. But I don’t have to do it the way that L. Ron does it,” she says, adding, “I wasn’t ever going to be teaching any Scientology. Who’s gonna pay for L. Ron Hubbard or anything he has to say?”

New Village Leadership Academy closed its doors in 2013. Despite its troubles, all of the teachers and administrators I spoke to for this story expressed disappointment that the school didn’t succeed, given its stated goal of providing a creative educational environment for disadvantaged children of color. Part of the reason was that it wasn’t financially sustainable. Tax filings revealed that Foster was making $225,872 a year, and that other salaries at the 16-teacher school came to $1,276,181; meanwhile, New Village Leadership Academy was only receiving just $740,000 in tuition payments, putting it squarely in the red.

“The founders were very open to people being there on scholarship, the teachers were paid really well. It really was a financial situation at the end,” says Johnson. “What was there that is overlooked is it was an environment for Black children to feel comfortable with themselves.”

Financial woes aside, the Smiths’ lack of transparency concerning its Scientology ties also represented a problem. To this day, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith haven’t taken full responsibility for the school’s Scientology curriculum.

“Schools have an obligation to be transparent about who they are, what they are, and what they teach,” says Ron Reynolds, head of the California Association of Private School Organizations (CAPSO). “If a school is enabling students to successfully transition to the next level of learning, that’s what’s important to me. But it can’t be done under false pretenses.”

Jawaharlal puts it more bluntly: “A school should be all about creating a great learning experience. It was not about that. It was about something else.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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