In the 2010-11 school year, Cornerstone opened a private, religious kindergarten intended to serve the Binghampton neighborhood. Originally located near Binghampton, Cornerstone failed to secure a neighborhood location, and at the last minute, was able to use borrowed space at Christ Methodist for the 2011-12 school year for its kindergarteners and first graders. Now in its third location in three years, Cornerstone finds it embroiled in controversy. I've written about it here, here, here, here, and here.
The absolute last thing that the Achievement School District and Cornerstone's East Memphis backers could have wanted is what is actually happening: allegations of mistreatment of students, community protests and meetings, and now, the involvement of state legislators and former Mayor W.W. Herenton.
I don't believe that most of the allegations against Cornerstone teachers and administrators rise to the level of child abuse. Confiscating shoes for playing with the laces, or tying them at inappropriate times - excessive but not abusive. Strict policies on bathroom breaks for K-3 students - again, perhaps excessive, but not abusive. Nonsense, but not abuse. Grabbing children by their arms to change their direction or get their attention - well, it will depend, but that gets closer to "abuse". It will depend on the language in the statute, but it is unlikely that the Department of Children's Services will find that outright abuse has occurred. If it does, that will be an entirely different problem.
I don't believe that child abuse is the central issue of this discussion about Cornerstone's place in Binghampton. The central issues of this discussion are how Cornerstone came to take over the Lester School, and Cornerstone's approach to the children and the community that it serves. Cornerstone administrators believe that they are uniquely situated to serve God by educating the children of Binghampton. They will tell you that those who are criticizing the charter school are wrongly focused on issues that are not related to the education of the children - issues like the school colors and the name of the school.
The truth is that in trying to solve the problem of the "soft bigotry of low expectations," the pendulum has swung too far in favor of "no excuses," constant test prep, and bootcamp discipline. Add in a stable of inexperienced teachers, a proud but poverty-stricken part of town, and state-level decisions made without community input. Should anyone be surprised that there is some tension in the neighborhood?
What they're missing is that part of the education of children is how we treat them. For those children that succeed and go on to college from humble beginnings - like those in Binghampton - eventually, they will understand that their own experience was very different from the kids in the "better" parts of town. That silent hallways and silent lunches don't fly in East Memphis. That in other parts of town, classroom management and school discipline just don't look the same. These children from Binghampton, these kindergarteners through third graders, somehow, because of their geography and socioeconomic status, are treated more harshly than they should be. And more harshly than East Memphis parents would allow their children to be treated.
Cornerstone will tell you that they are doing everything they can to work with parents, and to understand where there are problems. We are now seeing some backlash to the backlash - parents of Cornerstone students professing that their children are benefitting from Cornerstone, and are doing better academically than they did before. These parents now feel that their voices are being drowned out by the complaining parents and community members who (they claim) weren't concerned about the failing school in years past.
But even with all of Cornerstone's efforts, they've overlooked critical outreach opportunities. In this supportive-of-Cornerstone story on ABC24.com, we learn that parents, just Monday, formed a PTA. This means that the ASD does not have a policy requiring a parent organization at every ASD school, and that Cornerstone did not see fit that one should be formed. Communication has been on Cornerstone's terms, only as it has seen fit. It has taken this unfortunate situation to galvanize parents to form this organization themselves, well into the second semester of this school year. They seem to be supportive of the Cornerstone administration, and hey, they're entitled to their understandings of what is happening inside the walls at the former Lester School. But let's acknowledge that this newly-formed parent group is evidence of the ASD's and Cornerstone's failure to invite parents to engage in an official capacity. One-on-one meetings? Yes. Grade-level meetings? Yes. PTA? No. There should have been a PTA at every ASD school from Day 1.
That's the first step - having an official parents' organization sanctioned by the school, and welcomed into the school. The second step should be a much more public board for Cornerstone - the Board really should meet in public (since they are spending public money and performing a government function), but at the very least they should provide a way for concerned parents, or even just involved parents, to interact with the Board. There is always somewhat of a disconnect between administrations of schools and the families they serve. It is a benefit to parents to have public officials to whom they can raise issues of perceived unfairness or problems at the school or to pass along kudos for work well done. There should be a way for parents to go over the principal's head to the governing body of decision-makers - parents must be given the opportunity to be heard by officials other than those directly involved in the situation.
This is the issue that underlies most of the unhappiness in Binghampton over Cornerstone's school takeover. Parents don't feel heard by the people who should be listening in the school administration, and the community feels that it has no recourse for what appear to be the school administration's arbitrary decisions that affect not just the school, but the community writ large. The Shelby County School Board couldn't help them. The Cornerstone Board does not have announced, public meetings. The ASD also does not have public meetings, and in any event, they outsourced this particular school to a charter school. The Cornerstone Board selected the principal and the Executive Director. The Cornerstone Board is the only entity that can explain the policies and practices undertaken by the Cornerstone adminstrators, and that the Board has not taken any action to affirmatively engage with parents or the community in what should be public Board meetings is unfortunate. Complaining to the principal is one thing, complaining to the decision makers is something else entirely.
I have two takeaways from this debacle. One is that Cornerstone supporters are correct that a few isolated incidents should not brand all of the educators at Cornerstone as inexperienced taskmasters that can't tell the difference between a whiny child trying to get out of class and a bathroom emergency. I would also offer that Cornerstone's hypothetical success, which we won't actually be able to confirm or deny until next summer's release of this year's TCAP scores, should not be viewed without taking into account the full picture of how Cornerstone treats ALL of its student body and the community from which these young children emerge. If sacrifices have to be made on the altar of raising test scores, we should understand as a community exactly what those sacrifices are and whether we are actually willing to make them.
The second has to do with Dr. Herenton. Dr. Herenton has decided that retirement does not suit. Dr. Herenton's applications to open nine charter schools were denied last year. On appeal, the state approved all nine, and among the schools he will operate as part of the W.E.B. DuBois Consortium is a school for students incarcerated by Juvenile Court. But Dr. Herenton has not rested on his charter school laurels, or on what must be an intense schedule to open so many schools in time for the 2013-14 school year. At this week's School Board Business Meeting, General Counsel (now Interim MCS Superintendent) Dorsey Hopson announced that Dr. Herenton submitted a letter with petitions from the parents at two MCS schools requesting that the schools be taken over by Dr. Herenton's charter management organization. More on this later, but I have to wonder if the ASD schools are subject to the current parent trigger law in Tennessee. All it requires is the signatures of 60% of the parents, and approval from the school district. Can a charter even takeover a charter? Not that the ASD would approve it, but there's not exactly an exception to the rule written into the ASD's enabling legislation. It can't be a good sign for Cornerstone that Dr. Herenton has taken an interest in the former Lester School campus.