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EXCLUSIVE: First Interview with the Principal of Will & Jada Smith’s Shuttered Scientology School

Jacqueline_OlivierIn 2007, Jacqueline Olivier was hired by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith to turn their home-schooling experiment into an actual bricks-and-mortar institution. A year later, the New Village Leadership Academy opened its doors as protesters showed up to picket the school — by then, it was known that the Smiths had asked Olivier to use L. Ron Hubbard’s “Study Technology” as the school’s guiding curriculum. (Study Technology is also a significant part of coursework in the Church of Scientology, which Hubbard founded.)

But Olivier assured the public that the private school in Calabasas, California was strictly secular, and she played down the influence of Study Tech. Then, a year later, she was fired and replaced by a woman named Franca Campopiano, also known as Piano Foster. At the time, news reports suggested that Olivier had not embraced the use of Hubbard’s ideas strongly enough, which is why Campopiano, a Smith family friend, was brought in to replace her.

Now, for the first time, Olivier is talking about her two years working with the Smiths. She’s no longer playing down the influence of Study Technology. In fact, she tells the Underground Bunker that Scientology’s influence in the school was near total, and she knew that calling it secular was a sham. Her departure, she says, was definitely about her not being “with the program.”

This summer, we broke the news that the New Village Leadership Academy had shut down after operating for five years. The Smiths had put $1,235,000 into the school to get it going and finance its first three years. After that the school had tried to stay open through tuition revenue and fundraisers, but then it closed on June 28.

Olivier, 51, is now working as the principal of New Roads School, a private elementary in Los Angeles. After the Smiths let her go, she worked out a settlement with them, and has now decided to make her story known. She says she’s well into a project to write a book about her experiences, but she agreed to talk to the Underground Bunker for a preview of what that story will contain.

Olivier began her teaching career in the LA Unified School District, and after several years as a bilingual teacher in the city’s big public system, she left it for a private school. Eventually, she was the head of a school in La Jolla, California, when a recruiter started talking to her about a unique opportunity. The Smiths were starting up their own elementary school.

“I had always wanted to found a school,” she says, and so she went and interviewed with the Smiths in their home in Calabasas. “They had a home school. They presented it as an opportunity to found a school. They were going to spend a lot of money. It was going to be secular, and it would use best educational practices.”

Happier days -- Olivier is about third row in the group shot of the school

Happier days — Olivier is about third row in the group shot of the school

Olivier says she was also told that the school would make use of a curriculum called “Study Technology” by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. But the Smiths stressed that the study materials were secular and not affiliated with the church.

Olivier had been an educator for nearly 20 years. She had degrees from UCLA, Cal State Northridge, and Pepperdine University. And yet, as a EdD in education, she’d never heard of “Study Tech” and knew of no credible school that used it.

“They offered me a lot of money. I took the job, thinking they were actors and didn’t know what best practices were. I thought Study Tech would be easy to work around,” she says.

Former Scientology official Claire Headley has helped us understand the three basic concepts of Study Technology in our series, “Up the Bridge.” We can quickly summarize them. Hubbard believed that students had problems primarily because they skipped over words they didn’t fully understand. So at the heart of Study Tech is the “misunderstood word” or MU, which is solved by meticulously looking up chains of words in dictionaries, called “word clearing.” Second, Hubbard felt that students missed concepts because they were too abstract. He solved this by requiring a lot of modeling in clay and other materials. And third, Hubbard said learning had to happen on a gradient, meaning that advanced concepts can’t be understood until many intermediate steps are introduced first.

In our discussions with Claire, it became obvious that although these ideas appear somewhat like common sense, Scientology takes them to extremes, so that students spend huge amounts of time looking up small words like “an” or “the,” and hours go into making clay models of simple ideas.

For outsiders, Olivier says she quickly learned how to describe Study Tech in a way that made it sound harmless. “You could say, you just use the dictionary a lot, you use hands-on learning, and you don’t move up too fast. That’s what you tell people,” she says. At first, that’s how she figured it would be used at the school.

But after accepting the job from the Smiths, she learned more about the home-schooling operation they already had going at a house in Hidden Hills, California.

“I started finding out that everyone was a Scientologist, and what they were really up to,” she says.

At the Hidden Hills house, about ten children were being taught by ten parents. A one to one ratio? “Yes, it was one to one. And the house was just for the schooling. They weren’t living there,” Olivier says.

“All of them were Scientologists. They were doing ‘qual’ and ‘debugging’,” she says, using some Scientology jargon. “They were doing word clearing. There was ethics. All the teachers went over to the Hollywood Celebrity Centre every day for other courses.”

Besides the two children of the Smiths, Jaden and Willow, the others were the children of Smith family members or family workers. Most of them took Scientology courses.

And what about the Smiths themselves? We told Olivier that our own discussions with people who know the Smiths well led us to believe that Jada is an ardent Scientologist who has a serious fascination with the church’s “e-meter,” but that Will was more of a dabbler.

“If he isn’t one now, at least at that time he was, or seriously considering it. He was so into Study Technology,” Olivier says.

 

Jaden, Willow, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Will Smith, from a 2010 BBC appearance

Jaden, Willow, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Will Smith, from a 2010 BBC appearance

 
Will Smith was interested enough in Scientology, she says, that it concerned one of his closest advisers. As the 2007-2008 school year continued, Olivier says she was busy branding the new school and working out a lease for a building. In June 2008, Will Smith’s movie Hancock was opening, and Olivier says she was present when one of Smith’s partners talked to him about promoting the film.

“His business partner, James Lassiter, was telling him, ‘Don’t let Scientology get in the way of this movie. Don’t let the school and Scientology get in the way of the bottom line.’ I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the point of what he said,” Olivier says.

Tax records show that the Smiths made a payment of $1,235,000 from a family trust in order to finance the school. An unconfirmed press report claimed that about $900,000 of that went to pay for the three-year lease of a former high school in Calabasas. The New Village Leadership Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2008.

To prepare for it, Olivier hired a handful of non-Scientology teachers to go along with the ten Scientology teachers who had been running the home-schooling operation.

But before the non-Scientology teachers could go near the children, they had to get Scientology training, Olivier says. “You couldn’t interact with the kids until you’d taken a bunch of Scientology courses. And they were still supervised by the Scientology teachers to make sure they didn’t make any mistakes using Study Technology,” she says.

“They even wanted the parents to take Scientology courses. And they had a course room right on campus. With L. Ron Hubbard posters on the walls,” she adds. “The kids were taught all that stuff. That if you yawned, it meant you’d had a misunderstood word.”

What about the Smith children, Jaden and Willow?

“They only interacted with the Scientology teachers. They were in qual all the time.”

So they did more than just Study Tech? They were learning to become actual Scientologists?

“Oh, definitely. They were learning all the lingo. They had courses at the house.”

So Scientology, and not just Study Tech, constituted a heavy presence at the New Village Leadership Academy?

“It was the basis for the whole school. That was the overarching reason for it,” she says. “Will Smith would even say, ‘It has to be 100 percent in’,” she says, indicating Smith’s order that Scientology processes should be followed to the letter.

“I had this whole lineup of Scientology courses that I was required to take, and several of them were at the Celebrity Centre,” Olivier says. “They told me I had to be the expert on Study Tech, but what that really meant was that I had to keep taking Scientology course after Scientology course. It gets deeper and deeper, and at some point you wonder, what am I doing here?”

As the 2008-2009 school year progressed, Olivier increasingly chafed under the heavy Scientology presence at the school.

“It could have been a great school. But they were so vigilant about the Scientology aspect of it. In a fourth grade class, they were reading a first-grade text because they were so worried about the kids running into a misunderstood word. If a couple of kids got into a scuffle at recess, that also had to be the result of a misunderstood word,” she says. “It was so dull. The teachers were so bogged down following these rules, but that’s what Will and Jada wanted.”

In November 2008, Olivier went to the Smiths and said that things weren’t working. But they asked her to stick to the program.

In January 2009, however, the Smiths brought in Piano Foster to be the “director of curriculum.” Foster was married to the Smith family trainer, and she began pushing for a stricter reliance on Study Tech, only exacerbating the situation, Olivier claimed in arbitration documents that she made available to the Underground Bunker.

“In February, I told them I couldn’t do this,” she says. “The parents were complaining that it turned out to be Scientology. A lot of them left. I kept telling them no, it’s secular. But then I’d walk by a room and see kids doing clay demos and I felt sick. Eventually, my professional integrity wouldn’t allow me to stay there anymore.”

The Smiths let her go on June 23, 2009.

“After I got fired and there were lawsuits by other teachers and parents, I think they toned it down a little,” she says. But all but one of the non-Scientologist teachers she brought in, Olivier says, were let go after her own departure.

On Friday, we sent a detailed note about Olivier’s interview to Meredith Wasson at 42 West, who represents Will Smith. We’ll let you know if we receive any reply.

 
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Posted by Tony Ortega on November 18, 2013 at 07:00

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