Sunday, January 6, 2013

Cornerstone Shocked at Backlash in Binghampton

Cornerstone Prep's worst week ever was the week before Christmas. 

There was the unfortunate group protest in front of the Shelby County School Board by parents and concerned community members.  This was followed, the next night, by a disastrous meeting at the Lester Community Center that ASD Supt. Chris Barbic acknowledged "was the worst meeting we've had."  The initial unhappiness at the School Board was not covered in the media - likely because of the other events at that particular meeting.  But the Lester Community Center meeting resulted in two articles in the Commercial Appeal:  here and here.

The titles themselves show that the times they may be a-changin' in terms of how Memphis community members feel about the coming ASD tide:  "Memphis parents lash out against Achievement School District leaders" and "State-appointed charter school getting heat in Binghamton".

Cornerstone has been feeling the heat.  Both locally and nationally - Diane Ravitch and EduShyster, among other national bloggers, have been following Cornerstone's controversy.

Since then, I've seen a couple of references to Cornerstone, though its name was not explicitly mentioned.  In this article about a young Memphis chess star, Zack McMillin explained that "the state's move to turn over Lester to an evangelical Christian charter school organization pushed Bulington's program to Frederick Douglass Elementary School, and Emmanuel and his fifth-grade sister, Shimera, were among the many promising chess players who put in for school transfers to follow him."  In another article on the same day, Mr. McMillin notes other departures from Lester to Douglass:  "Several kids followed Bulington from Lester specifically to continue their pursuit of the chess. Others from Lester's English as a Second Language program, many of them African immigrants, also left Lester when the state handed the school over to an evangelical Christian charter schools organization."

Cornerstone is facing criticism from at least two fronts:  one is the rising criticism of the ASD and its methods of selecting schools and then "turning" them "around", the other is Cornerstone's methods and policies within the school and its interactions with the state.

For me, the question is why the ASD chose Lester School last year, when its focus was on Frayser's feeder patterns, and why it selected Cornerstone, a private religious school with only two years of teaching students (less when it was selected) that had never administered a TCAP and had only ever admitted kindergarteners and first graders.  This year, the question is why the ASD selected Lester Middle, a school not on its published list of possible takeover schools, and then announced it several days after the big press conference.  All of that smacks of sneakiness - though the ASD is correct that this is all within the powers delegated to it by the state legislature when it enabled the Race to the Top application and accepted the First to the Top designation.  The ASD is doing what it was designed to do.

In terms of Cornerstone, my question is whether the supporters of Cornerstone would stand for their own children to be treated in the highly regimented way that students at Cornerstone are treated.  Parents and children who are experiencing it describe it as "bootcamp."  I do not agree that children living in poverty and attending underperforming schools must be treated more roughly (or even more strictly) than children in the suburbs in order to get them to learn.  I also question whether the supporters of Cornerstone fully understand the behind-the-scenes lobbying that is taking place in order for Cornerstone to be in the position it has attained.  Supporters of Cornerstone clearly do not understand that by signing on with the ASD, they have aligned themselves with a politically controversial plan and method.  My sense is that they find themselves shocked that the Binghampton community has not welcomed them with open arms, and stunned that their motivations and methods are being questioned.  Changing the name of a well-loved school has turned out to be viewed as insulting. That there is a cross in the logo of Cornerstone has not instilled confidence in Cornerstone's proclamations that it is not trying to provide religious education. 

I think that most (if not all) supporters of Cornerstone are good people who are interested in trying to do the right thing by the children attending the former Lester School.  But the fact is that successful programs at Lester have had to be relocated to other schools because Cornerstone either won't support them, or because not enough children in the non-Cornerstone grades participate (because there are no longer enough of them).  There is also a distinction between supporters of Cornerstone and the leaders of Cornerstone - leaders who really should know better.  These leaders, Drew Sippel & Tom Marino among others, have done the reading and have picked a side in a highly contentious and highly political discussion.  That Cornerstone is getting some push back should be no surprise to them, given the heavy-handed way that Cornerstone has moved into Lester, and especially given the heavy-handed approach they have adopted toward classroom management and community relations.

All of that said, Commercial Appeal writer Mr. McMillin walks a fine line when he calls Cornerstone an "evangelical Christan charter school organization."  Methodists are not exactly evangelicals (usually) - at least not in comparison to other main line denominations, and are certainly not comparable in evangelical-ness (evangelical-icity?) to the number of non-denominational churches that exist in Memphis.  "Evangelical" means something other than just being Christian.  While Cornerstone was founded by proud Christians who wanted a private, religious school for underprivileged kids, under the law, Cornerstone is no longer permitted to provide any religious instruction because it is now a secular, public school.  If Cornerstone is operating in an evangelical way - limiting employment to Christians or making Christianity a condition of employment, encouraging Bible study (even before or after school), or proselytizing in any way to its captive audience of public school students - then those are serious allegations and must be addressed in short order by the ASD.  For the record, I would argue that any officially sanctioned prayer at staff meetings would be crossing the line in a publicly funded, secular institution, whether they occur off-site or on-site.  I am not aware of any such allegations.  But that's the implication when a charter school that is not permitted engage in religious activity at a public school is referred to as an "evangelical Christian charter school organization."  Then there's the overtly religious language that remains on the Cornerstone website does not serve Cornerstone in its efforts to quell concerns that it is taking an evangelical approach to educating its public school students.  (They'll scrub it eventually, but at the link, newly-minted Principal Lisa Settle is quoted as saying:  "I do not take this job of being principal of Cornerstone Preparatory School lightly. Moreover, it’s not just a job, this was truly orchestrated by God and I am where He wants me to be. I am doing what He wants me to do and I am humbled by the opportunity.  Why am I doing this? I am doing this because I must. I am an educator and I am a leader. I am doing this because my prayer is and always has been 'Use me Lord …'")

For the sake of all of the students attending school within the walls of the former Lester School, I hope - as much as the next person - that they are receiving an education that will position them for success in life.  Given the staggering amount of public resources being devoted to Cornerstone (and other ASD schools), along with the significant private philanthropic support that the charters raise on their own, on top of the normal state and local public funding per student, we have every right to expect great things - and no less than adequately educated students.  My preference would be that Cornerstone had remained a tuition-based private religious school where parents understood what they were signing up for (because they had to sign up) - an arena where its leaders and supporters are considerably more comfortable, but here's hoping they sort out their community relations problem, their classroom management issues, and begin to understand what obligations they have to the public when they accept public money.  But let's not pretend that it's a fair comparison to what traditional public schools are required to do with the limited resources reluctantly bestowed by the state and the County Commission, or that Cornerstone is the underdog.

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