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Motor City 'Miracle'

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The three campuses of the Cornerstone Schools, as they are called, welcomed their first pupils at the end of August. 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 make up what is believed to be the first interdenominational system to open with the backing of both Catholic and Protestant religious leaders.

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. But they are not tied to the Catholic Church, and the evangelization mission that is central to Catholic schools is not part of the Cornerstone concept.

A distinguishing 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. Only a handful of private schools nationwide use such a long schedule.

The schools' organizers say they envision the schools as "centers of hope'' for the city's underprivileged families. The Cornerstone system, they say, is rooted in the belief that early educational intervention can help steer pupils away from risks such as dropping out of school, drug abuse, and juvenile delinquency. By bringing together a diverse array of religious faiths and business and civic interests, they believe their schools can help fuel the process of renewal for this chronically distressed city.

"These schools are a positive response to the problems we have,'' Maida says.

"We cannot stay the course,'' adds the Rev. Eddie Edwards, a Baptist minister who served on the steering committee that established the Cornerstone Schools. "We must try different things.'' 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.''

The former Joy of Jesus School this year became one of the Cornerstone Schools, serving 60 children in grades 1-6. 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 6th and 7th graders, 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.

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.

A few months after he first proposed the interdenominational school, Maida met with numerous 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, including the Episcopal Bishop of Michigan, R. Stewart Wood Jr., Edwards, and officials of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Then several leaders from the private sector stepped forward to raise money for the concept. Leading the way was W. Clark Durant, a prominent lawyer from suburban Grosse Pointe and the head of the federal Legal Services Corp. under President Reagan. Durant formed an organization called the Genesis Foundation and pledged that it would raise $500,000 to open the schools and help provide scholarships. He now hopes the foundation can raise an additional $3 million for other similar projects.

While the parents who rushed to enroll their children in the Cornerstone Schools may not view their creation as miraculous, it is clear that many believe the schools are an answer to their prayers. "My son got lost in the public school system,'' says Janet Reed, a homemaker who pulled her 12-year-old from the Detroit schools and enrolled him in the 6th grade at Cornerstone's St. Louis campus. "I thought this would be a good sized school. He is going into middle school next year, and I didn't want to lose him.''

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

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

The students enrolled 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 say they do not feel threatened by the new interfaith system. "True, they are competition, but we welcome the competition,'' says Michele Edwards, a district spokeswoman.

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. As in other large cities, numerous Catholic schools in Detroit have had to close in recent years because of rising costs and declining enrollments. In such an environment, why would Maida undertake an effort to build new, non-Catholic schools? "As a single church, we can't address all the problems of the city,'' he explains. "We are doing wonderful things in the Catholic schools, and if we can multiply that 100 times, can you imagine what would happen?''

After touring the Cornerstone Schools recently, the archbishop says he is confident the project is "going to make a difference in our city and in our neighborhoods.''

"The big oak tree started as a little acorn,'' he says. "We are going to see this acorn grow.''
--Mark Walsh, Education Week

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