Motor City 'Miracle': 3 Interfaith Schools Open Doors

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DETROIT--This city's Roman Catholic spiritual leader last week called it a "miracle" that not one but three interfaith private schools were opening here less than a year after he had first suggested the idea.

Last October, Archbishop Adam J. Maida challenged Detroit's religious, education, and business leadership to collaborate on an unprecedented joint venture: an interdenominational school to serve inner-city children.

"Such a school would not be a threat to the public school system," the newly installed prelate said then in a speech to the local Economic Club, "but an alternative model, not only for education, but a model that could be applied to other endeavors in making all things new again."

The three campuses of the Cornerstone Schools, as they are called, welcomed their first pupils on Aug. 26. Two of the schools opened in previously closed Catholic-school buildings; the third was converted from an existing Christian academy. Initial enrollment totals 170.

The schools are believed to be the first such interdenominational system to open with the backing of both Catholic and Protestant religious leaders.

Organizers say they envision the schools as "centers of hope" for underprivileged families here. The three institutions combine several of the characteristics of traditional Catholic schools-rigorous academics, discipline, and a strong moral base-with an ecumenical approach to Christian education, a lengthened school year, and educational opportunities for parents.

By bringing together a diverse array of religious faiths and business and civic interests, the founders say, the Cornerstone 'Schools can help fuel the process of renewal for this chronically distressed city.

"The front pages of our national newspapers portray the city as being in big trouble," Archbishop Maida said in an interview last week. "But I think there is an awful lot of hope."

"These schools are a positive response to the problems we have," he said.

Though they have not generated the same controversy, the mission of the Cornerstone Schools has much in common with the goals voiced by the Detroit Board of Education in its effort to launch three African-centered public academies for young black males.

Both plans rely on the belief that early educational intervention can help steer pupils away from risks such as dropping out of school, drug abuse, and juvenile delinquency.

"We have a desperate situation out there," said the Rev. Eddie Edwards, a Baptist minister who served on the steering committee that established the Cornerstone Schools. "We cannot stay the course. We must try different things."

Mr. Edwards heads the Joy of Jesus Ministries on the city's east side. The ministry, focusing on education and neighborhood improvement, was cited last year by President Bush as one of his "points of light."

240-Day Calendar

The former Joy of Jesus School this year became one of the Cornerstone Schools, serving 60 children in grades 1 through 6.

The other Cornerstone campuses are in the former St. Louis the King Catholic elementary school on the city's east side, which will educate 30 students in 6th and 7th grades this year, and a west-side campus at a former Catholic high school on the grounds of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary, which is serving a capacity enrollment of 80 students in prekindergarten through 2nd grade.

The St. Louis the King campus will add an 8th grade next year, while the west-side, or Linwood, campus will add a grade each year until it offers elementary through middle school.

The schools offer a Christian-centered moral education, with courses such as "Basic Christianity" and "Gospel Values." But the schools are not tied to the Catholic Church, and the evangelization mission that is central to Catholic schools is not part of the Cornerstone concept. Another hallmark of the schools is an extended school year--240 days, instead of the Michigan standard of 180. Summer instruction will focus on enrichment activities such as camping and the arts.

The Cornerstone Schools are among only a handful of private schools nationwide that use such a long schedule, said Clark Ballinger, president of the National Association for Year-Round Education.

Tuition is $1,800 a year, which is more than the $1,224 average charged by parochial schools in Detroit, but less than the $3,000 or more charged by many other private day schools in the area. Sixty percent of the students are being provided partial scholarships.

Lawyer Headed Funding Effort

A few months after he first proposed the interdenominational school last fall, Archbishop Maida met with numerous influential religious and civic leaders to explore the concept. They enthusiastically endorsed a plan to develop two such schools.

Among the backers of the plan were several top Protestant religious leaders here, including the Episcopal Bishop of Michigan, R. Stewart Wood Jr., officials of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and Mr. Edwards of the Joy of Jesus Ministries.

Several business and professional leaders stepped forward to raise money for the concept. Leading the way was W. Clark Durant, a prominent lawyer from suburban Grosse Pointe. Mr. Durant was the head of the federal Legal Services Corporation under President Reagan and an unsuccessful candidate last year for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.

"While Detroit has seen much devastation and many tears have been shed, the greatest wealth of this city still remains," Mr. Durant said when the plan for the schools was formally announced. "It is the untapped potential of the human heart and the human soul."

But Mr. Durant helped as well to raise some of the more tangible wealth needed to launch the Cornerstone Schools. He formed an organization named the Genesis Foundation and pledged that it would raise $500,000 to open the schools and help provide scholarships to needy students. He has expressed hope that the foundation can raise an additional $3 million for other "Christ centered" projects here.

'Lost in the Public System'

On the first day of school last week, Mr. Durant joined Archbishop Maida and Mr. Edwards for a tour of the Linwood campus, where he promised to take the students to a Detroit Tigers baseball game.

Upon learning that the school already has a long waiting list, Mr. Durant said the board of directors of the Cornerstone Schools Inc. would discuss whether more pupils could be accommodated.

Selebrity Lee, a Detroit department-store employee who was enrolling her son in kindergarten at the Linwood school, said she began exploring private schools more than a year ago.

"The public system is in such need of help," she said, adding that the ecumenical Christian approach of the Cornerstone Schools appealed to her.

Across town at the St. Louis campus, Janet Reed, a homemaker, said she pulled her 12-year-old son, Robert, from the Detroit schools for the first time this year to enroll him in the 6th grade at a Cornerstone school.

"I have watched my baby try but not succeed in public school," Ms. Reed said. "My son got lost in the public school system."

"I thought this would be a good size school," she continued. "He is going into middle school next year, and I didn't want to lose him."

Sabrina Rainer, a nursing assistant whose daughter Chavon received a scholarship worth one-third of the annual tuition, said she was dismayed with the public schools because "the teachers didn't have any control of the class, even in elementary school."

She echoed the comments of Ms. Reed, saying that the elementary and middle grades were the best chance for the school system to steer young people from the ills of the city.

"If you don't catch the young people now, they are lost," she said.

The 170 students in the Cornerstone Schools this year equal just one-tenth of 1 percent of the students served by the public system, which has an enrollment of approximately 170,000. Public-school officials have said they do not feel threatened by the new schools.

"True, they are competition, but we welcome the competition," said Michele Edwards, a spokesman for the city's board of education.

No Threat to Catholic Schools

Cornerstone Schools Inc. is officially separate from the Archdiocese of Detroit, but the project's executive director, Norma Henry, is on loan from her post as associate superintendent of archdiocesan schools.

To the relief of organizers, the Cornerstone Schools do not appear to be pulling many students from the 39 Catholic elementary schools in the city.

"Out of the three schools, we have only 10 children who were formerly in a Catholic school," Ms. Henry said.

Archbishop Maida was quick to point out that his involvement with the new schools would not diminish his support for Detroit's Catholic schools, which last year served about 10,000 elementary and 2,400 high-school students. Sixty percent of the enrollment in city Catholic schools is non-Catholic, officials said.

The archdiocese last month launched a marketing campaign aimed at boosting enrollment in both city and suburban Catholic schools.

As in other large cities, numerous Catholic schools here have had to close in recent years because of rising costs and declining enrollments. In the face of the challenge of maintaining the Catholic school system, Archbishop Maida was asked why he undertook an effort to build new, non-Catholic schools.

"As a single church, we can't address all the problems of the city," he explained. "We are doing wonderful things in the Catholic schools, and if we can multiply that 100 times, can you imagine what would happen?"

The archbishop was assigned here last year after serving as bishop of Green Bay, Wis. He replaced Cardinal Edmund C. Szoka, who left for a post at the Vatican after making controversial decisions to close more than 30 inner-city Detroit parishes whose flocks had largely migrated to the suburbs over the years.

The church closings were a painful episode for the archdiocese's 1.5 million Catholics. Ms. Henry said that Archbishop Maida has been steadily rebuilding their good will toward the church hierarchy.

"He's a people person," she said. "He has won the hearts of everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic alike."

After he toured the classrooms of the Cornerstone Schools, the archbishop said he was confident the project was "going to make a difference in our city and in our neighborhoods."

"The big oak tree started as a little acorn," he said. "We are going to see this acorn grow."

Vol. 11, Issue 01, Page 24

Published in Print: September 4, 1991, as Motor City 'Miracle': 3 Interfaith Schools Open Doors
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