Here at the American headquarters of Transcendental Meditation, people like to brag that, much as in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, "all the children are above average."

"The children are so enthusiastic to do things -- competitions, academics and so on," said Ashley Deans, headmaster of Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment, a K-12 academy with about 300 students. "And when they enter it, they win it -- time and time again."

The secret, school officials say, is Transcendental Meditation -- the practice of invoking a state of deep relaxation by mentally repeating a word, or mantra.

Advocates say Transcendental Meditation can spread success at other schools, and groups promoting it recently have appeared at public schools in New York, California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and other places.

But critics, and there are plenty, say that Transcendental Meditation in public schools straddles the line between church and state and that other forms of meditation would be just as effective for students.

"I would call it a stealth religion," said Barry Markovsky, a University of South Carolina sociologist who researches social networks. "I would ask whether this is a group I would want to have teaching my children stress-reduction techniques."

Transcendental Meditation is a trademark technique brought to the United States by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu monk who became guru to the Beatles, Mia Farrow and other celebrities in the 1960s. In the '70s, he bought the bankrupt Parsons College in this southeastern Iowa city of about 10,000 and established Maharishi University of Management.

Followers recently formed the Consciousness-Based Education Association to provide "scientifically validated educational programs, technologies, and consulting service for new schools, existing schools and after-school organizations," according to the group's Web site.

"You have 10 million kids on antidepressants, one in five black kids with hypertension, America not leading the world in test scores," said Bob Roth, spokesman for the Consciousness-Based Education Association. "Transcendental Meditation is not just a way to reduce stress, it's a way to prepare a student to learn."

Roth said his group is not actively approaching schools but rather providing information when asked.

"A school day can get pretty stressful," Maharishi School sophomore Cooper Rose said during a break from math class. "Being able to meditate every day gives you a chance to settle and to get a nice basis for the day on your mind."

Maharishi School officials are quick to point out that their students have scored in the 99th percentile on standardized tests for the last 10 years, that 95 percent of graduates go to college and that they graduate 10 times the national average of National Merit Scholar finalists.

Critics contend that most private schools charging $12,000 a year for high school tuition probably would be able to post similar numbers. University of Iowa education professor Nick Colangelo also notes that studies indicating benefits of Transcendental Meditation have yet to break into some of the main education journals and, until that happens, "I think everybody's going to be a skeptic on it."

Still, public schools in Detroit and the District have incorporated Transcendental Meditation into their students' daily routines. Educators there say it helps reduce stress and behavioral problems in the inner-city schools.

As principal of the Fletcher-Johnson Educational Center in the District, George Rutherford introduced Transcendental Meditation to his students in 1994.

"We were in a situation where we were at the center of drugs, of homicides in our area of Washington," said Rutherford, a Transcendental Meditation practitioner. "Johnson became a safe haven for our neighborhood."

A big stumbling block for widespread use in schools could be cost, with schools having to pay about $625 a year per student for Transcendental Meditation training.

At Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse in Detroit, a public charter school where students practiced Transcendental Meditation, the cost is covered by private donations and corporate grants from the likes of DaimlerChrysler and General Motors.

"It's something that many will carry with them into high school and adulthood," said Jane Pitt, the Transcendental Meditation counselor at Nataki Talibah.

Skeptics say any form of meditation could accomplish the same results touted by Transcendental Meditation advocates -- without the religious undertones.

The issue hasn't been widely explored in court, though a federal judge in New Jersey ruled in 1977 against teaching Transcendental Meditation and the Science of Creative Intelligence, a parallel instruction method, in a public high school.

"What they're doing is singing praises to Hindu gods," Markovsky said. "Are you practicing religion if you don't know it? It's arguable, but the religious basis is clear for anybody to see."

Rutherford, a Baptist, denies any religious element to Transcendental Meditation. "I'm not going to let anything take away from what I believe in," he said.

Above, Maharishi School students practice Transcendental Meditation in front of teacher Siggi Lamothe. Below, Christian Hoffmann is an 11th-grader at the Iowa school.