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.”

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.

Building bonds

‘Trust is being built’ as foundation invests in programs to support Detroit parents and students

PHOTO: Kimberly Hayes Taylor
Teacher Michele Pizzo and students Wajiha Begum, Iftiker Choudhury and Demetrious Yancy are closer since she's visited their homes

Anna Hightower didn’t know what to think when her daughter, Jasmine, wanted permission to invite her teachers to visit their home in October. But she pushed past her reluctance and nervousness, baked brownie cookies and opened her doors to two teachers from the Davison Elementary-Middle School.

She discovered a new world of information on being a better parent as a participant in the Detroit main district’s new initiative to empower parents, the Parent Teacher Home Visit Program.

It’s part of a sweeping initiative led by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which announced a three-year, $3 million grant Wednesday with the Detroit Public Schools Foundation. The initiative also includes a parent academy which will serve 7,000 parents, and a summer camp for up to 900 pre-kindergartners starting in the fall.

It’s the first grant Kellogg has awarded as part of its $25 million commitment to a major initiative called Hope Starts Here that Kellogg, along with the Kresge Foundation, announced last fall. The two foundations plan to spend $50 million to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat).

Hightower said she believes the home visits are helping set the direction for her daughter’s life.

“I see now that DPS is not just a school for my daughter, but also a GPS,” she said.  “They see where my daughter wants to be, they know the destination and give her the opportunity to see the different routes she can go. They encouraged me as a parent to foster her growth as well.”

By the time the first home visit was over, the new relationships got 12-year-old Jasmine planning to join the school math club, apply to attend Cass Technical High School and consider her college choices.

La June Montgomery Tabron, W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO, helped design the initiative to help the city’s youngest citizens, but Wednesday was the first day she met program participants.

“It just brought tears to my eyes,” she said. “It’s real, it’s practical. These aren’t easy relationships to build, but they are being built and trust is being built.”

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said rebuilding the district must include making parents stronger advocates for their children’s education.

“Every parent cares about their child’s education,” he said. “The reality, though, is a lot of our parents don’t know how to navigate the system in order to advocate for their child every day. Some of our parents are intimidated by the system. Sometimes, parents are not welcomed by schools, principals and even teachers, and sometimes district staff.”

Parents, he said, also often are carrying heavy loads, working multiple jobs, and struggling to pay bills. While they’re navigating everything, they are challenged to put their children and their  schooling first.

He said he envisions a “critical mass of parents” in every school who will hold the district accountable for its performance: They will demand certified teachers. They will understand how to help their child get a higher SAT test score, complete a financial aid application and help their children become better readers.

“All of this, I probably would say, is part of the greatest reflection of what I want us to be as a district,” he said.

Parents will be able to take classes on topics such as resume writing, scholarships, and college placements tests. The Parent Academy training will be held in schools, libraries, community centers and places of worship across the city.  

Michele Pizzo, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Davison, said volunteering to visit homes has become personal for her.

She’s gained weight eating four- and five-course meals of samosas, biryani rice and rich desserts prepared by families in the school with a majority Bengali student population. She’s made new friends while visiting with her students’ parents, and she better understands her students and feels she knows them better.

Since the fall, when the program was in its pilot stage, she has visited 30 parents after school and on weekends — all in homes except one.

“We try to make the parents feel as comfortable as possible. We walk in, give them a hug, kissing on both cheeks, and there’s a huge meal that takes place,” she said.  “They are able to open up to us, and even if they couldn’t speak English, their child translated for us.”

For seventh-grader Iftiker Choudhury the home visits have made him and his family closer to his teacher.

“I get along with the teacher more, and it’s like very friendly now,” he said. “I’m comfortable now and I talk to her more. My parents knowing her, it creates a bond in all of us.”