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Cornerstone Academy

Difference makers

Back-to-school | WORLD looks at three Christian schools that are making a difference for special-needs kids, missionaries, and children from low-income families

Issue: "Tough love," Aug. 18, 2007

The Potter's School

Springfield, Va.

During her family's 11-year service as Christian missionaries to Croatia, Donna Pedroni soloed at homeschooling for as long as she could. But when her daughter, Kelly, reached eighth grade, "I knew there was no way I could teach science," Pedroni said. In 2001, after researching potential sources of help, some missionaries serving in the Middle East told the Pedronis about The Potter's School. That, Pedroni said, was when "the love affair began."

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The Potter's School, like a range of other web-based groups, supports homeschooling families, but with some key distinctions. First, using internet videoconferencing technology, the school provides live classroom instruction for 1,750 kids worldwide, in which virtually the only thing missing is the classroom itself. Offering a full range of courses for students in grades 7 through 12, classes meet with a teacher in a live web session for 90 minutes each week. Each session uses live audio-meaning everyone in the class can talk to everyone else-in addition to text chat, video, slide show presentations, even live instruction via whiteboard.

Pedroni first enrolled Kelly in a science course, then added literature and world religion. She then enrolled her seventh-grader, Shannon, and later followed suit with two younger children, even continuing with the school after the family returned to Ashburn, Va., for furlough in summer 2006. "The professionalism of the teachers was just unbelievable," Pedroni said.

The Potter's School's second distinction is its missions emphasis. "One of the top two reasons that missionaries come home is that they don't feel they can properly educate their high-school-age kids," said director Jeff Gilbert. "We really do, by God's grace, help keep missionary families in the field."

The school takes a decidedly Reformed approach to academics as part of the bigger process that the Bible calls "labor." School is a subset of the larger mission of stewardship and discipleship, Gilbert said, not "some stand-alone process. School, chores, ministry, work-we see it all as labor to be done with excellence before God."

Gilbert has found that about 80 percent of the time academic struggles are actually struggles with the pursuit of excellence, rather than with subject matter. "We get a lot of phone calls: 'My kid is struggling in math.' Usually, the real problem is something related to initiative or diligence. Most of the time, we wind up approaching academics as an issue of character."

The Potters School's philosophy is that if a child is diligent, applying himself fully to his schoolwork and serving in the home, then that child is a "good and faithful servant" whether he earns an A or a C. Conversely, Gilbert said, "If a child is not diligent and gets an A, we view that as a negative."

Cornerstone Academy of Glenwood

Glenwood, Md.

What struck Carol Parent most the first time she visited Cornerstone Academy wasn't the curriculum. It was the body language of the kids. "I thought, these are not the special-needs kids I've seen in regular programs-sliding down in their seats with body language that said, 'Please don't notice me, please don't call on me,'" said Parent, who had spent 20 years as an educator, first in public schools, then as a teacher and administrator at a Christian school. "These kids were sitting up straight in their seats, participating. They were not afraid to be who they were, whether they were quirky or not."

Cornerstone Academy of Glenwood is one of a relatively few Christ-centered programs for special-needs kids in this country. A Maryland state-approved, non-public school for children in grades 1 through 12, the school provides instruction for kids with learning differences including speech and language disorders; attention and academic skills disorders; processing deficits and dyslexia. Tuition is $17,840 a year, about half the cost of other schools for kids with learning differences in the Baltimore area. Cornerstone uses the "Orton Gillingham approach," a structured, sequential, multi-sensory method that wraps visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile processes into learning to read and spell.

It also uses the biblical principle of gifting to restore academic self-confidence to students who may have lost it in traditional programs. "We start with our kids when they come here and begin to convince them of the truth that God has given everyone gifts," Parent said. "Depending on how long they've spent in other programs, they've spent a lot of time not being free to be themselves."

Parent wants to be clear that the Christian covenant community has done a great job with kids who fall in the low to high academic range. "Most of the time, it's because of budget that we miss the kids outside either end of the range. It's not because of Christian educators' hearts." Cornerstone, she said, is serving in another niche, a place where kids with learning differences "can experience the truth that God accepts them for who they are."

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