Link Between Religious 'Cult,' Group Selling Self-Esteem Materials Alleged
By Jonathan Weisman
An organization selling self-esteem programs to schools throughout the country has been linked to a religious group branded as a cult by past members, educators, and watch-dog organizations.
The ace program, or Achievement and Commitment to Excellence, has heightened fears among self-esteem critics and advocates alike that the burgeoning movement is spawning a gold-rush atmosphere in which people with questionable credentials are selling themselves as self-esteem experts.
"It will probably be the death of the [self-esteem] movement," said Robert Reasoner, superintendent of the Moreland school district in San Jose, Calif., and a former president of the National Council for Self-Esteem. "People are jumping in to make money and killing its credibility."
Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network, said ace was just one self-esteem group on which her organization maintains files. Others have been linked to the est movement and the Church of Scientology.
"Unfortunately, this is the wave of the future," she warned. "Educators are going to have to scrutinize not only the content of the seminars [they are considering instituting] but the organization behind it."
Ace is currently being implemented in six high schools in the Philadelphia school district at a cost of $25,000 per school, and in the Imperial County, Calif., schools for another $20,000. The organization has conducted one-day seminars with numerous other districts and schools in California, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania.
Ties to MSIA Alleged
Documents, press reports, cult experts, and former members connect the group with the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness, or msia, a Los Angeles-based religious group that follows the teachings of John-Roger Hinkens.
Mr. Hinkens, a former high-school teacher, claims to have direct contact with God and tells his followers that, through him, they will be guaranteed a place in heaven, according to msia publications and former members.
Ace officials and participating educators deny any connection between ace and msia, pronounced Messiah, and say ace's work is solely to improve students' academic achievement by enhancing their self-esteem. The educators say ace has had just those effects, and they point to statistics to back their approval.
"In my personal opinion, it was an excellent program that provided things that truly did something," said John Leichty, an administrator at the Los Angeles Unified School District who oversaw an ace pilot program three years ago at Nightingale Junior High School.
As the Nightingale pilot came to an end in 1988, the Los Angeles Times ran a two-part expose connecting msia and Mr. Hinkens with numerous offshoots, including ace. The stories "just blew out the leader of the ace program," Mr. Leichty said, making it politically impossible to replicate it as he had wished.
Similar stories have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, People magazine, a weekly mag4azine in London, a weekly newspaper in Washington, and newspapers in Attleboro, Mass., Needham, Mass., and Aspen, Colo.
Esther Jantzen, the teacher who introduced ace to Philadelphia school officials, called the press reports "new-age McCarthyism."
Stu Semigran, ace's director, acknowledged in an interview that ace was formed under the auspices of Insight Seminars, self-esteem workshops developed under the msia umbrella. But, he said, last September, ace separated from Insight and formed the Educare Foundation in Santa Monica, Calif.
Furthermore, he said, his wife, Candy Semigran, left her post as chief executive officer of Insight, further distancing ace from its former parent organization.
But msia defectors still believe the connection is there.
"There's definitely a connection, no allegement about it," said Jack Canfield, who helped design self-esteem seminars while in msia and now owns and operates Self-Esteem Seminars Inc. in Culver City, Calif. Mr. Canfield serves on the California Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility and the board of the National Council for Self-Esteem.
Despite the allegations, William C. Thompson, a spokesman for the Philadelphia schools, said the district had no plans to phase out ace. After studying the matter, Superintendent Constance E. Clayton was satisfied that ace was not connected with any improprieties, he said.
The danger involved is debatable, defectors admit. Some say susceptible teenagers caught in the complex web of msia may eventually find Mr. Hinkens, whose devotees, they say, have become fanatics. Others dismiss the assertion as far-fetched.
But conspiracy theorists point to educator-msia connections that already exist as proof of their warnings:
Ms. Jantzen said in an interview that she learned of ace through Insight. Since then, she said, she has become involved with msia.
The principal who brought ace to Imperial County, Patrick Peake, also said he has taken Insight seminars and is involved with msia. He strongly denies any connection.
The Central Bucks County, Pa., school district, which hired ace to conduct a one-day staff seminar in January for $1,200, was referred to ace by a principal who has been involved with Insight, the district's assistant superintendent, N. Robert Laws, said in an interview.
Such connections should not be blown out of proportion, other observers say, contending that ace mainly serves as a public-relations effort by those connected with msia. Indeed, many stress that Mr. Semigran has good intentions.
"There's a huge amount of positive public relations in working with youth," said Victor Toso, who defected from Mr. Hinkens's inner circle at msia in 1985.
'Running a Business'
In an interview, Mr. Semigran challenged opponents to find religious overtones in the ace program.
The fact that he is an msia minister makes no difference, he said, pointing out that nobody has raised questions about practicing Christians, Jews, or Buddhists teaching in the schools.
Legally, he is right, said Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association.
"Let's face it," she said, "if everybody in the nsba happened to be a member of the same religion, that does not make us a religious organization."
Any legal questions about separation of church and state would arise if public funds were going to support msia, she said.
Mr. Semigran said any suggestions that money was flowing to msia were ridiculous.
"We're here to run the program, to pay salaries, to cover costs," he said. "It's called running a business."
By all accounts from educators who have seen the program, the business is run well and is benefiting students.
According to Edward Magliocco, principal of Dobbins High School, which in 1989 became the first Philadelphia school to sign on for a $12,000 pilot program, the 9th-grade Chapter 1 students participating in the program have an attendance rate 2 percent to 3 percent higher than their peers' and a lower failure rate.
"It sort of makes you feel good that something is working," he said.
The Dobbins program consists of 10 to 15 minutes per day of self-esteem instruction. Such instruction includes helping children find their positive qualities, set goals for themselves, interact with their families, and work through problems.
At Strawberry Mansion High School, at-risk 9th graders are broken into two groups. One attends a humanities class that incorporates ace lessons into journal writing, public speaking, and other academic pursuits, according to Karen Delguercio, the school's vice principal. The other group attends a math and science course that also uses ace lessons in hands-on experiments and problem-solving. In mid-year, the students switch classes.
Imperial County's five high schools and five junior high schools send between 10 and 30 students and 5 to 10 teachers to a one-week workshop, this year held last October, said Mr. Peake, principal of Aurora High School in Calexico, Calif., and coordinator of the county's Self-Esteem Program for Youth. The initial workshop is followed up by a daylong workshop three times a year.
Of the 10 Aurora students in the program, 8 made the honor roll last quarter, Mr. Peake said. The high-school average is about 1 in 5.
Said Ms. Jantzen, the Dobbins High School teacher, "I say to anyone who's critical, 'Well, have you got a better idea?"'