Church and state

The backdoor voucher? How a Detroit school created to lift up a ‘Christ-centered culture’ found a way to get public dollars

PHOTO: Allie Gross
At the Cornerstone charter recruitment gathering, families scooped up documents from a table brandishing the phrase “Faith. Family. Culture.” — the private school’s trademark.

When prospective families arrived at Cornerstone Schools’ flagship campus on Nevada Street last month, they were greeted by a staff primed to woo and sell.

Folding chairs had been placed in the tidy front entrance of the northeast Detroit school, and one by one, administrators stood up to speak about the rich culture and strong curriculum that parents and children had come to know and love since the religious school opened in 1991.

“You know, when you come in the fall, we’re going to have a team of parents waiting for you to teach you how to do things because there’s a way to do things. Just like when you go to a church or join a new group,” said Candace Brockman, the primary school principal and soon to be K-8 leader, to the crowd of potential families.

In March, Cornerstone announced that starting next year, its flagship private Christian school would stop providing primary and middle school classes. Instead, a charter, employing the same staff and using the same curriculum, would take over. Families from the religious school would help new families get to know the new school, Brockman explained. The words “Centers of Hope” glimmered in gold typeface above her as she spoke.

“They are going to make sure you understand the history and how they do things and that’s how we’re going to do it here,” she said. “You are going to have to get with our program.”

The history of Cornerstone is clear: The network of schools was started in 1991 by local attorney Clark Durant in response to a speech given by the city’s then-archbishop Adam Maida to the Detroit Economic Club. But how the families Brockman was addressing would get with the program — at least as it exists today — is less straightforward. Although the schools’ genesis was Christ-driven, nearly three decades after its creation, four of Cornerstone’s five schools are charters, which by law cannot teach religion.

And starting next year, the program is even more ambiguous. The last standing private, pre-K through 12th-grade Christian school, the one Brockman was presenting at, will be undergoing its own conversion.

Pinpointing where the religious school ended and the charter school began was difficult. Parents sitting in the room may have wondered: Am I at a meeting with Cornerstone Nevada, the flagship, independent, religious school? Or am I listening to a talk about Cornerstone Jefferson-Douglass Academy, the soon-to-open public charter school? The two entities couldn’t help but brush against each other.

Following Brockman’s presentation, parents were invited to come forward and pick up enrollment information for the public charter school. Making their way to the front of the room, families scooped up documents from a table brandishing the private school’s slogan, “Faith. Family. Culture.” Children grabbed bookmarks that showcased the Cornerstone schools’ principles — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Although posters and murals dotting the hallways made clear that these values came from Galatians 5:22, Fruit of the Spirit — the Apostle Paul’s nine traits of a Christian — the information was noticeably absent from the giveaways.

PHOTO: Allie Gross
A hallway at the Cornerstone flagship campus showcasing the network’s guiding principles.

Cornerstone’s switch from private to charter raises thorny issues about the separation of church and state — and whether Michigan’s notoriously freewheeling charter sector is set up to safeguard it. It also highlights questions about privatization — whether the Cornerstone network is using its charter schools, and the public dollars they’ll bring in, to prop up their struggling religious school.

The network, and its portfolio of independent and publicly funded schools, offers an example of “the extreme difficulties private religious schools are going to confront if they are trying to become charter schools, and want in some way to maintain what they believe are their core values,” said Kary Moss of the American Civil Liberties Union, which lobbies to protect the First Amendment. “This is obviously a big problem in a state like Michigan where there is such a pro-charter movement and little regulation.”

U.S. law bars public schools from teaching religion. Voucher programs, which exist in 14 states and Washington, D.C., have blurred the boundaries by allowing parents to use public education funds to pay tuition at religious schools. But Michigan does not offer vouchers. Voters rejected the practice in 1970 and again in 2000 when now-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos helped to underwrite the ballot proposal and poured upwards of $12 million into the campaign.

As a result, there are no options for religious schools in the state to get public funds for instruction. It also means that religious schools that struggle financially have little choice but to close.

But the state’s chaotic school choice landscape offers a not-so-obvious loophole: Schools can shop for an authorizer to reopen as a charter school, allowing them to receive public funds in exchange for accountability tied to student learning. The downside: They must drop their religious affiliation and practices, and open up to all students.

That could be a tall order for Cornerstone, a 26-year old school network steeped in religious rhetoric and created for the express purpose of “lifting up a Christ-centered culture.” Brockman, like much of the current staff, says on the school’s website that she “considers it a blessing to be able to educate children in a learning environment that places Jesus Christ first.”

The network has transitioned from private to charter before — in 2009 they converted two of their religious schools into charters, and they’ve since opened two more. And their authorizer, Grand Valley State University, has found no problems with the Cornerstone charters overstepping church-state lines. Yet conversations with the school’s founder, Durant, highlight the needle-thin line they straddle.

“We are a little not-for-profit trying to do the great prophet’s work if you will. God’s work. To help these children have fulfilling lives,” Durant said in an interview with Catholic News Network last summer. He later defined a fulfilling life as “following the things Jesus would teach and to love God and to love others.”

The comments give insight into the intricacies and strength of Cornerstone’s religious roots. But they also just toe the line, never fully compromising the school’s secular status.

A big part of this is due to the outward-facing work of the network to still draw distinctions between its private and religious schools. Like the other charters, Cornerstone Jefferson-Douglass Academy will move from the purview of the Cornerstone Schools Association, the organization running the private school endeavors, to the Cornerstone Education Group, a management company that leads the network’s charters.

For example, the four charter schools adopted a brand-new curriculum, and while the schools continued to use the private schools’ principles — love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — charter leaders do not place them in the context of the Bible or make them as much of a focus in the school day.

“What you have to do with your charter school is you say ‘OK, what are the attributes then of the character that make it possible for a person to at least begin to appreciate?’” Durant said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “So what is it? It’s love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, long-suffering, all these things which, in a fulfilling life, if you had those virtues, you’d be an amazing human being.”

Durant, who received a contribution and public endorsement from DeVos when he ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 2012, said he wants “every company, every organization” to hire his graduates, knowing that “they would infect the culture in a good way in those places.”

Still, the four charter schools, which fell in the 9th, 14th, 19th and 20th percentile according to the latest state rankings, have not hit the same threshold of success that the Cornerstone private school boasts. The low achievement, which Durant calls unacceptable, spurred a recent restructuring of the charters’ management company. A new CEO and chief academic officer were hired. The network has also been re-visioning what a Cornerstone charter school will look like, with Jefferson-Douglass Academy as a forthcoming case study.

A hallway at the Cornerstone flagship campus.

 

Unlike the other Cornerstone charter schools, Jefferson-Douglass Academy will keep the same curriculum the private school is currently using. Additionally, a Christ-centered class will be offered after school by a third party. Finally, the time slot that previously was saved for chapel and a “Life and Teachings of Jesus” course will stay on the schedule but be replaced with intensive character development.

The school is also in the process of re-thinking how they can make sure influential texts, such as the Bible, are still, legally, underscoring lessons.

“I think of the things that we’ve talked about a number of times and I am certainly interested in, and that is how can we be more intentional about what the kids get exposed to,” Durant said, adding that texts like Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech are chock-full of religious allusions that require an understanding of the Bible to fully comprehend.

“If you begin to understand what King said — the references he’s making, why he’s referencing the 40th chapter in Isaiah, why he’s doing these other things — and you have kids go and read that stuff,” Durant said.

And while officials have been clear they understand the law and their First Amendment obligations, at a recent information session for religiously oriented Cornerstone Nevada parents, school officials emphasized that Cornerstone’s core principles and “culture” would go nowhere when the school transitions to a charter.

“We want to have as many of our kids that we can seeding the kindergarten each year,” said Ernestine Sanders, the CEO of the Cornerstone Schools Association, the private school network, explaining how the school’s current pre-K would remain private and Christian.

Current parents who expressed concerns about having students without the same background enter their children’s classes were reassured.

“Is the goal to put all the Cornerstone kids in one (class) and then everybody else in another?” a parent asked.

Sanders nodded. “That’s our goal,” she said.

Critics of allowing religious organizations to receive charters to run publicly funded schools say Cornerstone’s hybrid model is troubling. They note that even if the charter schools stay in their lane and don’t teach religion, public dollars will still be benefiting the private, religious institution.

The Nevada campus, which the private Cornerstone Schools Association owns, will be leased to the Jefferson-Douglass charter school for 13.5 percent of its yearly per-pupil funding — or an estimated $500,000. While Durant says the lease funds will be kept at an arms length from any religious programming done by the private Cornerstone Schools Association, it has been noted that the network’s only remaining religious school, the Nevada campus high school, plans to expand in the coming years.

These fuzzy lines are troubling to some.

“In the religious voucher setting, if you’re going to give vouchers to non-public schools you can trace the money and know what you’re getting,” said Peter Hammer, the director of the Damon Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University’s law school. “Here it’s like one of those bad science fiction movies where they take over the body.”

The authorizer that green-lighted Cornerstone’s most recent switch, Grand Rapids-based Grand Valley State University, has experience authorizing schools run by religiously oriented operators. In 1990, one of their schools, Vanguard Charter School Academy, was the subject of an ACLU legal challenge. Filed on behalf of five families with children at the school, the lawsuit charged that the campus allowed prayer in school, taught creationism, and held a mandatory staff retreat with religious overtones.

The suit was ultimately dismissed, after the school made some changes as a result of the lawsuit. But not before attracting national attention to the charter school, which was run by National Heritage Academies, a for-profit charter network founded by Michigan billionaire and DeVos friend J.C. Huizenga.

Now, Grand Valley State University, which authorizes over 65 charter schools across Michigan, says it plans to keep a close eye on the church-state issue. The group even plans to hire an outside consultant to make sure the school’s space is “free of inappropriate religious symbols,” said Alyson Murphy, the organization’s director of governance and compliance, in an email.

“We review the curriculum (I recently reviewed the Jefferson-Douglass curriculum with a fine-toothed comb) to ensure it is consistent with public school laws and we also have a school consultant who attends every board meeting,” Murphy wrote in an email. “We are working closely with the board’s legal counsel to make sure that all religious items are appropriately covered up/removed before students are in the building for class.”

Candace Brockman, the primary school principal and soon to be K-8 leader, speaks to the crowd of potential families.

Grand Valley officials appear to have their work cut out for them, far beyond the church-state issues.

Sanders told parents at the transition meeting that the school would likely not be able to serve students with all kinds of disabilities — something private schools can do but public schools cannot.

“If we figure that we can’t meet (a student’s) needs then we’ll have to say that, because sometimes kids come with some incredible challenges, and parents, we know that another school would be able to do that,” Sanders said, noting that the school’s principal was still doing interviews to assess potential students. “You know, like autism is an area where we would say we can’t do that, but there are schools in a public school that have to meet that need, but it’s not something we can do. So the more we know, the more we can say ‘You can come here.’”

Authorizers are responsible for ensuring that charter schools comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

It will have to keep a close eye on the school’s academic performance, as the other charter schools in the Cornerstone network have struggled. One campus, Lincoln-King Academy, landed on the state’s priority list in 2014, and only recently came off of it. Today, it’s the highest ranked Cornerstone charter school, falling in the 20th percentile, but only after Sanders was hired to help bring up achievement and strengthen culture.

Finally, Grand Valley State University will have to make sure that the new school remains solvent — which could be a challenge if it fails to thrive in Detroit’s crowded charter landscape or if current parents grow alienated and leave.

Nicole Perry said she isn’t thinking about pulling her 10-year-old son Ayinde out of the school that will soon be known as Jefferson-Douglass. But she said she was dismayed to learn about the conversion, even though it will eliminate her tuition bill.

Perry, who is the current PTO president for the primary school, said she chose the school in 2012 because of its rigorous academics, small classes, and “Christ-centered learning environment.”

“I feel like with us becoming a charter school it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re like the other schools. When I used to say Cornerstone, it meant something different,” said Perry, who said she cried at the first meeting when she learned Cornerstone wouldn’t be a private school anymore.

Still, she will be there next year — one of the parents Brockman spoke of who will guide and welcome newcomers.

“No one likes change if it’s not what you want, but the way I see it we either have to get on board or get off in my mind,” she said. “My son has been here for six years, I know the lay of the land, I like the school. Let me take this new person and grab them and show them, why not help the situation rather than hurt it.”

Struggling Detroit schools

The story of Detroit’s schools is much more nuanced than many people realize. Here’s how we can cover it together.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Rynell Sturkey, a first-grade teacher at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit's west side often manages jam-packed classrooms of 37 kids or more. Her students have no music or art or gym. “They’re with me all day in this room. We’re tired,” she said.

Ever since my husband and I announced to friends and family three years ago that we’d made the somewhat-impulsive decision to sell our apartment in Brooklyn and move with our two small children to downtown Detroit, we’ve been confronted with the same persistent questions:

Erin Einhorn
Erin Einhorn

“You live in Detroit” we’re asked, with a tone of skepticism and, frankly, judgement. “And you have kids?”

The questions are rooted in the perception that the schools in Detroit are so awful that no decent parent with other options would reasonably choose to live in this city. It’s a perception I know is grounded in some deeply concerning conditions in Detroit schools, including many of the issues I’ve covered as a reporter for Chalkbeat. I’ve written about the Detroit teachers and families who alleged in a federal lawsuit last year that the conditions in Detroit schools are so deplorable that they violate children’s right to literacy. I’ve spent time in classrooms where a teaching shortage has meant 37 first-graders packed together all day without a break for music, art or gym. And I’ve seen the heartbreak on the faces of students and parents who’ve learned that the charter school they’d chosen would be closing, leaving them to scramble for another school in a city where choice is abundant, but quality is rare.  

I appreciate the concern from friends and family who are worried about my children, but the truth is that my kids are going to be completely fine. My husband and I have a car and accommodating jobs that enable us to enroll our kids in any school in any neighborhood  — options that poor transportation and the uneven distribution of schools have put out of reach for far too many kids. And, as it happens, we found a great public school right in our own neighborhood where our oldest child now walks every day to kindergarten.

The truth is that the story of Detroit’s school is much more nuanced than most people realize. There are serious challenges — no doubt about that — but we’re not going to be able to address them until we stop asking each other what we’re going to do about educating our own children. We need to start asking what we can do to make sure that families in every neighborhood have a shot at a decent education. That’s what we try to do at Chalkbeat. We aim to tell the stories of teachers and students and parents, to put a human face on challenges that would otherwise be difficult to understand. We look at what’s working in our schools and what urgently needs to change.

This school year marks the first full year that Detroit’s main school district will be led by a new school board and superintendent. And it will be Chalkbeat’s first full school year since we formally launched in Detroit last winter. We hope to grow this year, adding another reporter to help us expand our coverage of early childhood education, special education and other matters crucial to the city’s future. And we’ll continue to cover the important issues affecting Detroit children and the way they learn.

We can’t tell these stories without you. So please — reach out! Introduce yourself, join our community by submitting a story tip, giving us feedback or making a financial contribution. Contact us at [email protected], follow us on Facebook and at @ChalkbeatDET. And, please, keep reading!

 

Struggling Detroit schools

Scores of Detroit schools are empty eyesores. Here’s why it’s so hard to bring them back to life.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
Blackboards in the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School still hold memories. The school closed in 2009.

The school building that Detroit Prep founder Kyle Smitley is trying — and struggling — to buy for her charter school is far from the only one sitting empty across the city.

A wave of about 200 school closures since 2000 has pockmarked the city with large, empty, often architecturally significant buildings. Some closed schools were repurposed, most often as charter schools; others were torn down. But most remain vacant, although the exact number is unclear.

Vacant schools can become crime hubs or crumbling dangers. But even if that doesn’t happen, they are disheartening reminders of Detroit’s struggle to prioritize education for its children — at the heart of communities where good schools could make a big difference.

Most residents would like to see the buildings come back to life, if not as schools, as something. But even as developers rework other vacant structures, these school buildings are rarely repurposed.

Understanding why illuminates the complexities facing Detroit’s main school district’s effort to get itself back on track.

For one, school district policies — some of which were created to discourage flipping and the opening of charter schools  —  have made selling these buildings difficult.

Smitley, the co-founder of two charter schools, wants to move Detroit Prep into the former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School by fall 2018. Detroit Prep opened in 2016 in the basement of an Indian Village church and will eventually serve 430 K-8 students.

“We’d like to be part of a positive story for Detroit, and turn a decrepit building back into a school that serves the neighborhood,” Smitley said.

Smitley is preparing to do a $4 million rehab on a building where flaking paint litters the hardwood floors. Lockers gape open. Natural sunlight floods classrooms where instructions from the last day of school are still chalked on the blackboard: “Spelling Test … George Washington Carver Reading – Timed  … Clean Desks … Take Books.”

Landlord Dennis Kefallinos bought the former Joyce school from the public school district in 2014 for $600,000. The general manager of Kefallinos’ company told Chalkbeat that they planned to repurpose it for residential use when the market seemed right, or wait a few more years to re-sell it for a large profit.

But another challenge of repurposing schools is that their complex layouts and their residential locations far from downtown do not easily adapt to other uses. And the market for former school buildings was flooded with closed public and parochial schools in recent years, which further reduced demand.  

Some developers have transformed empty Detroit schools into apartments, luxury condominiums, or a boutique office building. However, these were former Catholic schools, or, in the case of Leland Lofts, sold to a private developer more than 35 years ago. Catholic schools generally have smaller footprints, which are more manageable to renovate, and they do not have the same deed restrictions as more recently closed public schools.

PHOTO: Anna Clark
The former Anna M. Joyce Elementary School in Detroit closed in 2009.

In the case of Joyce school, Smitley’s persistence and the intervention of a mutual friend convinced the Kefallinos company to sell to Detroit Prep. She agreed to buy the building for $750,000, and to pay the district $75,000 on top of the sales price, per a condition in the original deed.

But the status of the sale is uncertain, as she and the district spar over the law and whether the district can halt the sale of the building — which it no longer owns.

On the northwest side of Detroit,  two Detroiters have been trying for years to buy the former Cooley High School to turn it into a community center, as part of the much-lauded Cooley ReUse Project. This summer, it was crowdfunding the last $10,000 it needed to finally become Cooley’s owners.

But on August 31, the project’s social media account announced that “after meeting with Detroit Public Schools Community District’s (DPSCD) new leadership, it has been confirmed that Thomas M. Cooley High School is no longer for sale. We were told that Cooley will be secured and redeveloped by its current owner, DPSCD.”

Donations are being returned to the contributors. In the meantime, the 322,000-square-foot building is vulnerable to theft and vandalism, destabilizing its northwest Detroit neighborhood.

The Cooley and Joyce schools were built when Detroit schools faced a different challenge: capacity. They opened during the fast-moving period between 1910 and 1930 when 180 new schools were built to keep up with growth. In 1966, the district peaked with 299,962 students. Since then, it has shrunk to fewer than 50,000 students.

No matter who owns a closed school building, its revival depends on its security. Failure to secure it results in profound damage by scrappers, criminals, and natural elements. That will either add millions to the cost of rehabilitation or doom it to demolition. It also threatens the neighborhood.

John Grover co-authored a major Loveland report, spending 18 months investigating 200 years of archives about public schools in Detroit, and visiting every school in the city.

Boarding vacant schools with plywood isn’t enough, he learned. As its buildings were continually vandalized, the district escalated security with welded steel doors and cameras, though even these are vulnerable. Securing a building properly costs about $100,000 upfront, and $50,000 per year ever after, according to the Loveland report. In 2007, it cost the district more than $1.5 million a year to maintain empty buildings.

Chris Mihailovich, general manager of Dennis Kefallinos’ company, said that it hasn’t been cheap to own the empty Joyce building. Taxes are high, security is expensive, grass has to be mowed in summer and snow has to be shoveled in winter.

The Joyce school is in better condition than most, which Grover credits to its dense neighborhood. “At least up until a few years ago, a retired cop lived across the street, and he watched the block and would call in if he saw anything,” Grover said.

But he remembered the fate of one elementary school in east Detroit that was in a stable neighborhood when it closed.

“It became like a hotbed for prostitution and drug dealing,” he said. “There were mattresses stacked in the gymnasium. It definitely had a negative impact on the neighborhood. … I can’t imagine people would want to live around that, and those who could get out did.”