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.
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."
Before school each morning teachers in the primary school gather in a classroom for a short devotional and prayer. Although their principal is male, most of the teachers at the primary level are young and female. But walk across the school to the middle-school wing and the room is full of men, who also gather to pray before school begins.
Before coming to Cornerstone in 1995, Ms. Sanders had taught English in an affluent, all-white high school, a Friends school, and a school for gifted students, so she knew what excellent suburban education looked like. She brought the same expectations for excellence to Cornerstone, and it is reflected in the building's immaculate appearance and the first-rate materials she solicits for her students.
For instance, she didn't beg for used violins, violas, and cellos for the school's music programs, but raised money for new instruments. "We need the same resources that you would give to any place where you expect excellence," she says.
That desire for excellence requires a challenging curriculum that includes Spanish (beginning in kindergarten), art and music (beginning in pre-K), and instrumental music (beginning in 3rd grade). Cornerstone graduates are sought-after by the city's several good magnet high schools and other parochial high schools.
Since the school doesn't have admissions testing and is open to all kinds of students, it offers individualized curriculum at both ends of the academic spectrum, for both slow and gifted learners. To make sure kids have enough exposure to the material, the school runs 11 months a year and gives four nights of homework per week. The school chooses curriculum based on its objectives, and then tests annually to make sure the curriculum is actually teaching what it's supposed to.
Partnerships are central to Cornerstone. The school has two kinds of "community partners," attending and supporting (one of each kind for each student), who agree to donate $2,000 per student. Attending partners also agree to come to Cornerstone four times a year to meet with their students and work together on a project. Some partners sponsor one child, some five, and one sponsored an entire class for $50,000.
Although the true cost per child is $8,400, the sponsorships and other fund-raising enabled Cornerstone to set tuition this year at $2,750 for an 11-month school year. Many students receive scholarships to help cover part of that cost, but all families pay something.
Corporate and philanthropic partnerships are responsible for the well-equipped science and computer labs that would make many suburban private schools envious. But several other partnerships are also important. When parents put their kids in the school, they sign a covenant underscoring their responsibility to their children's education. They agree to volunteer at the school, attend conferences, cooperate on discipline, and get their kids to school on time. A partnership with St. John Health System enables Cornerstone to offer an on-site medical clinic, where families receive services from dentists, doctors, and social workers.
A partnership with a Lutheran special-education ministry helps Cornerstone provide on-campus special-education services in exchange for executive office space. Special-education teachers provide pullout services for some students and testing for others. "We try to make sure that kids are appropriately placed," Ms. Sanders says, acknowledging that some students will be better served by the extensive special-education offerings in the public schools.
Cornerstone's brochures boast of student achievement on standardized tests, graduation rates, and the excellent high schools and colleges attended. But on Saints and Angels Day the benefits seem more tangible. In a city that used to be known for Devil's Night, the night before Halloween when vandals and arsonists roamed Detroit, it's a hopeful sign for Detroit to see little children begin a parade through the school's wide corridors, their wings fluttering and halos slightly askew, singing "We will, we will love Him ... we will, we will love Him."