A stone not rejected

Culture | EDUCATION: With Detroit public schools failing, large local corporations have backed something they would normally avoid: Christ-centered Cornerstone schools

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

A T 7:00 A.M. THE EASTSIDE Detroit neighborhood near Mound Road and Nevada is quiet. North on Mound Road, beyond the Detroit city limits, side-by-side Chrysler and GM plants operate. Small businesses, bars, and storefront churches line Mound to the south.

Cornerstone School sits a few blocks off Mound, on an 18.5-acre site that used to belong to a boarding school for the deaf. The school is bordered on one side by a street that could be the inspiration for countless children's drawings: An orderly procession of tiny frame houses sit side-by-side, each on its own small lot. In the middle of each front yard grows a maple tree in full fall color. On the school's other side sits a large church and the Marvin Winans School for the Performing Arts.

Early in the morning, the only vehicle in the school parking lot is a red Ford Ranger with yellow letters advertising 1-800-Guard-US. That's the cost of doing business if you want to have lots of windows in a marginal area. But by 7:30 cars pull into the circular drive, releasing girls dressed in plaid uniforms and boys in dark pants.

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The main entrance to the school, a curving wall of windows shaded by a pillared portico, is part of a new addition that, along with renovations to the old building, cost the school about $10 million. The school has large, bright classrooms, wide corridors, salmon-and-beige tile floors, and plenty of room on the walls for artwork, inspirational quotes, and huge photographs of students with mentors.

Cornerstone School has become a model school nationwide because it has garnered support from Detroit-area corporations, including the Big Three automakers, even though the school has a Christ-centered vision. Traditionally corporations are reluctant to support Christian schools, but Cornerstone has managed to attract wide and generous support because corporate managers see the need to support an academically excellent alternative to Detroit's failing schools. Ernestine Sanders, president of Cornerstone, says executives "see the value of what's going to happen with kids getting an excellent education."

The seeds that grew into Cornerstone were planted in 1990, when a group of community leaders agreed that the city's schools were failing and a generation had been lost. The group didn't want to start another parochial school affiliated with a particular church but an independent "Christ-centered" school that could be supported by lots of different churches, businesses, community groups, and individuals. Ten months later, Cornerstone opened with 167 students.

Twelve years later that seed had grown into the Cornerstone School Association, with three campuses in three different Detroit neighborhoods, providing an education to more than 800 students, most of whom are black, and many of whom are from low-income, single-parent families.

Oct. 31 may be Halloween to most children, but at Cornerstone School's Nevada campus it was Saints and Angels Day. The primary-school girls drifted into school dressed in white robes and gossamer angel wings. Many wore glittery halos on their heads. Most boys preferred long shepherd's or king's robes and coats of many colors. Several children dressed as lions, and one little girl, dressed in a miniskirt and black tights, wept when her teacher kindly told her that her costume was inappropriate and she'd have to change into her plaid uniform.

When principal Ernestine Sanders saw the sad child, she bent down eye-level with her and asked about the problem. The girl whispered something about her costume, and Ms. Sanders nodded, gave her a sympathetic squeeze, and sent her off to change.

Ms. Sanders, immaculately dressed in a suit and heels, manages to be both imposing and warm at the same time. She pauses in her tour of the school to hug a former student and ask how she's doing at the magnet high school she now attends. Ms. Sanders also pauses to check on the reason some of the students in the middle-school wing are dressed in T-shirts and jeans rather than their uniforms. It turns out the kids had earned the privilege of dressing in spirit clothes because their parents had attended certain meetings at the school.

Saints and Angels Day in the primary school demonstrates part of the school's "Christ-centered" mission. The school avoids sectarian issues and is not tied to a particular organization, but large posters containing Scripture-"All your children shall be taught by the Lord and great shall be the peace of your children"-hang in the halls and classrooms. The school believes its job is to expose young children to the teachings of Jesus and does that through weekly chapel and Bible-based character education. Mrs. Sanders says, "Our Christ-centeredness provides the mission for getting things done."


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