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A Detroit School Where Jesus Is Head of the Class

A Detroit School Where Jesus Is Head of the Class

Ernestine Sanders and Clark Durant attribute their school's success to its Christ-centered focus.

When Adam Maida, the former Archbishop of Detroit, spoke in 1990 to the Detroit Economic Club, he had no idea that he would spawn an entire school system in a city where today only 30 percent of children graduate from high school. In his talk, Maida referenced the Book of Revelation and the gospel call "to make all things new." Clark Durant, then a lawyer, read the talk—and then heard the divine call to create Cornerstone Schools. "I was beginning to see the power of the person of Jesus to change people and [institutions]," says Durant, a 2012 candidate for the U.S. Senate.

In a city with heated debates about education, Cornerstone decidedly does not call itself a charter school or a private school. Rather, its leaders—chairman Durant and president Ernestine Sanders—simply call it a school whose culture is centered on the person of Jesus. Since 1991, Cornerstone has grown from 165 to 1,500 children—90 percent of whom go onto college or the military—and has earned attention from CNN to George W. Bush to several accrediting bodies.

Dwight Gibson, a Detroit native and friend of the City project, naturally wanted to understand the success behind Cornerstone. Gibson, the Chief Explorer for The Exploration Group, recently met with Durant and Sanders at Cornerstone's central building to find out.

Why were Cornerstone Schools started?

Clark: I worked in the Detroit News offices because I was running for Supreme Court in Michigan at the time. The editor, Tom Brey, mentioned to me a talk that the new Catholic archbishop had given to the Detroit Economic Club. The cardinal's talk was [about] making all things new, drawing from the Book of Revelation. He presented the idea of creating a new kind of school.

"Making all things new": How does this happen at Cornerstone Schools among students?

Ernestine: When you look at all the things Jesus talks about, it's always the opposite of what you think he would do. So for Cornerstone to say that we're going to bring young people into the community and not be daunted by what they can and can't pay—that's the opposite of what everyone else would say. We want to transform lives for good and create a new city for all.

How are you going to do that?

Ernestine: It's our people, whether it's our maintenance man, Mr. Cole, or a teacher. In Mr. Cole finding his place in this community, the kids see him as valuable. He has wisdom. That's why Cornerstone is excellent—we try so hard even as imperfect as we are to lift up a Christ-centered culture.

And in lifting up that culture, the education is coming along. So you keep aspiring to that excellence. What we try to do here is not to be daunted by the circumstances. Rather than being daunted by it, we try to be as strategic as we possibly can. I see us trying to build that broad and beloved community that Clark referenced.

Clark: When we opened our doors in 1991, I met with the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, Deborah McGriff, a wonderful woman and great educator. I told her what I was trying to do. We had 165 kids at the time, in pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade. I told Deborah, "I just want you to know I'm doing this." She just looks at me. We were a little school in a big city. At the time Detroit Public Schools had 175,000 kids.

Last year, Doug Ross, who is in charge of opening up some new high schools in Detroit Public Schools, asked me if I would meet with eight or nine new principals. He said, "I want you to talk about your culture." I said, "Doug, this is an independent school. We have this dimension about this Jewish man [Doug is Jewish] who is at the center of what we do." He said, "I got it. I just want you to talk about your culture."

It was ironic, and in a poetic and wonderful way, that almost 21 years later, they're calling us to come and help them with their principles.

I saw a note on your website about the fruits of the spirit being lived out at Cornerstone. Is that what we're talking about?

Ernestine: It really is. What's wonderful about the fruits of the spirit is that when you think about love, peace, patience, kindness, joy, self-control, and generosity, you can have those fruits in any school, and that's the power of the Christ-centered culture. To be able to talk with 4 year olds about what it means to be generous, what it means to love, they get it. We try to have that permeate the schools.

There are public schools, charter schools, home schools, and parochial schools. Are you saying that the legal entity of a school doesn't matter when it comes to its culture being effective?

Ernestine: Correct. There isn't a legal piece that says you can't have good character.

Clark: That's correct. I think it will be transformative for our country if that were more broadly appreciated.

The motto for Cornerstone is "Changing Detroit One Child at a Time." How is a child different after he or she graduates from Cornerstone?

Ernestine : Well, 97 percent of our students graduate from high school. That's a huge data point in this city.

However, [asking] what happens when they leave is becoming more significant for us. You could rest and say, "We graduated them; they're on their own." We have something in our mission that says that we want graduates to have fulfilling lives of servant leadership. We have to change the child, the young person, and the adult. And it's forcing us to look at what we have not done. We have to go deeper.

We're reaching into our alumni base. We use this analogy: If you are a parent, if Clark is a parent, then he's forever the parent. If Ernestine is the parent, I'm forever the parent. So while you're not at the center of your adult child's learning, you're there for them when they are doing well. You're there when they have a huge question, you're there to provide a relationship so they can go to someone else. That's what Cornerstone is charged with now. When you want to be transformative, your job doesn't stop when your students leave your school.

Clark: We have failed in our mission. If you look at what our vision is, it says that we see transformed lives for good, and a new city for all. Our mission speaks of following Jesus for a sure and fulfilling life.

Flourishing?

Clark: We don't say "flourishing." We should, by the way. Thanks, Dwight. Make a note of that for the next board meeting.

We have fabulous statistics. Most of our kids graduate from high school in a city where maybe 30 or 35 percent do. More than 90 percent go onto college, the military, or some other kind of learning. But those are not the measurements that really determine a fulfilling life. Sure, it's important, but is it the measurement we use for our own children? Is it the measurement that God uses for us?

Ernestine: They graduated, they move on, and you're not done. I used the parent [analogy]. Your job is never done.

Clark: When Ernestine and I speak to the eighth graders when they graduate, sometimes we say, "I ask only one thing of you. God has equipped you, and these teachers and your parents have equipped you to live a full life consistent with these things that Jesus is teaching. I have one request: When Ernestine and I are in a nursing home, we want you to come and tell us what you've done with your life."

If the Lord could grant me one small wish, [I would ask him to] let me look back over my shoulder and see the fruit of all of this.

When it comes to your funding model, is it difficult to raise funds for Cornerstone?

Clark: It's hard work. We calculated last summer that more than $100 million has come into Cornerstone over 21 years. A lot of it was used to create campuses in other locations that we don't have today. And here we are on the ropes again, determining how we can pay our bills and make sure things happen.

In 1991, when we opened the schools, I said to a friend, "We just opened the schools, we have 165 kids, and I don't know how we're going to pay these bills." We had a few families who made a three-year commitment to help, but it wasn't going to cover everything.

My friend asked me, "Clark, what is the singular attribute that is Jesus?" I gave him this complicated answer. I don't even remember all of it. All I know it was too long for what he was looking for. He said to me, "It's really simple, Clark. You can say that it is love, but what is that?" So we talked about that. Then he said, "Clark, it's simpler than that. It is giving of oneself to allow another to have a more abundant life without asking for anything in return.

"If you go back and create that around these children, you could charge for the privilege. If you create that, God is going to honor that in a way that you and I [can't know] now."

That was an Emmaus Road experience. I called my law partner and said, "Michael, I have this idea and it's going to work." I went to his house and asked him, "What is the singular attribute that describes God?" He said, "I don't have that kind of time." I said, "it's love." We're going to create these relationships that touch the life of these kids that reflect that. We'll ask people to give their time, just come in four times a year, and write a check. Michael said to me, "You will not find 50 people to come into a city they're afraid of, to give time they don't have, to be with children they don't know, and to pay for the privilege."

I said, "Michael you're my brother, you've taught me a lot. Write that down, because you're wrong." Somewhere in my archives I have that note. Out of the community has come tremendous wealth, and not just money. Money is the least of it.

What can others in Detroit and beyond Detroit learn from Cornerstone? Could Cornerstone work in New York City? Chicago?

Ernestine: In a word, I'd say yes.

Clark: I'm right behind her. We are responsible for making our strategy more easily transportable. Most people are daunted because of the financial piece, to be blunt about it.

On a personal level, since running for public office and losing, I have been looking at options, and a couple of weeks ago told our foundation board that I'm staying. I will stay for the next 14 to 15 years, because I think this is what God has in store for Cornerstone and Detroit in particular, and I want to be a small part of it.

In Detroit, in a city that in many cases the world has rejected, that's where God shows up. Every example in the Gospels where God shows up, it's always when the seas are the stormiest, where there is discontinuity. It is always where there is a dislocation of some sort in a person's life and a person's situation, because it is only then that we realize we can't solve this anyway.

Our hunch about Cornerstone and your role in Detroit was confirmed for me when I walked down the hall before we started this conversation. I was talking with a young mother who walked me to your office. The kids were coming out of their classes. They were laughing and doing what kids do. I said, "I've heard this is a wonderful school." She said, "It is, it's my family." I said, "Oh, really? So how is it your family? Do your kids go to school here?" She said no. I said, "So how is it your family?" She said, "A couple years ago our home was broken into and all the Christmas presents were stolen from my family. The school provided presents to my kids that year. This is my family."

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