EXCLUSIVE: Suddenly without warning Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s privately funded New Village Leadership Academy shut its doors this summer. The school, in Calabasas, California, was a mystery: it used some Scientology curriculum and had gone through a couple of head administrators. The last one, named Piano Foster, had taken Scientology courses. But as late as last spring, New Village had been having auctions, and looked like it was returning in the fall. Then it simply shut down.
What happened? Hollywood veteran manager and producer Jeff Wald sent his two youngest daughters to New Village. I spoke to him yesterday. Wald had a lot of praise for Will and Jada, and for Piano Foster (real name Franca Piano Foster). He told me that despite the reports from “bloggers,” there was never talk of Scientology at the school.
But, he said, “We could never get past the association. We couldn’t raise any money. And the Smiths were putting in $2 million of their own each year. They couldn’t keep supporting it.”
According to their last federal tax filing, in 2011, New Village finished that year in the red with a negative balance of -$284,931.
Wald says the idea of New Village was to offer “middle class black kids a chance” for a good private education. He said that “eighty percent” of the students were African American. The tuition was low by comparable standards. “Just $25,000” a year, he said. Private schools in New York, by comparison, run at around $40,000 a year.
The curriculum included basics, Wald says, but also special projects that kept the students engaged– like making videos about Occupy Los Angeles, or fashion projects that were about body imaging and self esteem. The students also had days of community service.
Some children of sports stars were starting to come to New Village, Wald says, including the toddlers of New York Nets players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. There was at least one back up singer for One Direction. Hollywood show business attorney Ken Hertz, who was on the New Village board, didn’t return several phone messages and emails. His wife, Teri, was also on the board.
Many of the people who worked at the school had connections to the Smiths. But Wald says when Will Smith was informed the son of one of his employees, a student, was bullying other kids, he was asked to leave New Village.
“They didn’t play favorites,” says Wald, whose daughter will miss the school. “We never met nicer people, and we had a lot of laughs. The Smiths helped a lot of people.”
And still, Wald emphasizes, he is friendly with Piano Foster and may do a project with her. Her husband, he says, works for Will Smith now. He adds: “There was never any proselytizing about Scientology.”