A Way in the Wilderness
At the edge of a D.C. city block dotted with mildewed, two-story brick housing projects is Cornerstone School, a private Christian school located in a section of Southeast Washington known as Anacostia, one of the worst neighborhoods in America. Proclaiming its mission to “[bring] a Christ-centered, nurturing, and academically rigorous education to the children of Washington DC,” Cornerstone got its start in 1998, when Capitol Hill staffers started the school after Congress discarded a report they had written on strategies for successful practices in urban schooling.
Cornerstone now boasts 152 students from Pre-K through 10th grade, and counts D.C. notables like former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett, Politico scribe Mike Allen, and Meet the Press executive producer Betsy Fischer as donors. Erin Hoekstra (the daughter of former Michigan representative Pete Hoekstra) sits on the Board of Directors. Yet despite its high-profile boosters—or perhaps because of them—the school is a humble monument to the traditional values of hard work and commitment, anchored by a curriculum built on the intellectual canon of Western Civilization.
Cornerstone’s Executive Director is Clay Hanna, a Bronze Star Army Officer who served in more than 600 combat patrols in Iraq and later trained peacekeepers in Burundi, Nigeria, Togo, and Rwanda. Initially volunteering part-time with the school upon returning from Iraq, Hanna was hired to lead it full time in 2009 after several difficult years when it struggled with funding, leadership changes, and the consolidation of two Cornerstone locations into its current one, a space leased from the Catholic church next door. As Hanna welcomed me into his spartan office of white cinderblock walls and 70s orange carpet, I caught sight of his bookshelf, lined with works by Homer, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and Jonathan Edwards, and more contemporary writers like historians Niall Ferguson and Paul Johnson, and the pastor and theologian R.C. Sproul. As we sat down, Hanna, who had been a philosophy major in college, told me that he became captivated by the great thinkers in high school, and that later on, as a result of his leadership experiences in the Army and in Africa, he “had [his] eyes opened to the potential of education to transform communities and societies.”
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Anacostia is a community in need of transformation. Fewer than 10 percent of the students in public high schools go on to college. For black males, its 5 percent. More troubling, 75 percent of males from Anacostia will spend time in lockup by the time they’re 35. Most of Hanna’s students live below the poverty line and come from single-parent homes. According to Hanna, “It can be life-threatening simply walking to school. Or they just don’t have the support they need at home—the amount of time and effort it takes for that parent to help the student stay on track. But they are willing to not get beaten down by the challenges and are willing to work hard. They serve as an inspiration to me because of their commitment to education.”
While Anacostia’s problems can be found in nearly any American metropolis, Cornerstone’s educational solutions are uncommon. For one thing, Cornerstone is not a charter school, so it accepts no money directly from the government, the better to maintain freedom from government dictums on curriculum. While Hanna acknowledges that fundraising is “always the biggest challenge,” Cornerstone is proving that piles of money aren’t necessary for student success. Every single child in kindergarten can read, he says, and 90 percent of students who start at Cornerstone in 2nd grade or before pass the Stanford Test, a national English language proficiency assessment test. If students start in 3rd grade or after, 70 percent test at grade level or above. Compare that to 20–30 percent proficiency rates on DC’s own CAS test at neighborhood public elementary schools Kimball and Aiton. Cornerstone has also laid the groundwork for a number of students to go on to college over the years, most of whom would otherwise almost certainly never go.
In Hanna’s estimation, there are several reasons for the high achievement rate. Chief among them is the curriculum, which emphasizes studying the canon of Western Civilization. Says Hanna, “Exposure to great books is a huge emphasis to us. That’s why we are able to outperform the majority of charter schools. Our high school students will read the Iliad and the Odyssey, and our elementary kids will read Frog and Toad Are Friends or Charlotte’s Web. We try to connnect the ideas of philosophy to history—how did Hegel and Nietzsche shape what happened in pre-war Germany? To be able to think through a time period or idea deeply is a skill that needs to be developed and encouraged. Our curriculum supports the end goal—a leader and thinker who will give to the community and also be able to secure a job.”
In the lower grades, where cognitive development is stressed, Hanna is going back to the basics. “When teaching kids how to read, we use phonics. As they get into reading age, we don’t just focus on literacy, but literature—how to engage with and appreciate it, not just read words. It pays off when books and ideas become more complicated—they have the tools and interest to approach it. We do this because we know reading to kids is the biggest predictor of reading later.”
Hanna is against what President Bush described as “soft bigotry of low expectations,” and nowhere does this apply more than in Cornerstone’s approach to math and science. “We believe children at primary school age should be strong in basic math facts—memorizing times tables, long division in their head, do multidigit subtraction and addition in their heads. That level of familiarity and comfort will set them up for success in algebra and mathematics.”
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As Hanna leads me down a hallway decorated with crayon reproductions of Auguste Renoir’s painting The Dancer, he emphasizes his direct control over personnel as a reason for the school’s success, a huge difference from public schools. Hanna points to a landmark study by Harvard University released this January, which demonstrated how important teacher quality is to student success. “Being able to get rid of bad teachers and train good ones is the most important thing. Public schools have invested heavily in professional development and training, but that hasn’t changed the outcomes much. One of my best teachers here has a J.D. but could never get hired at a public school because she doesn’t have a certificate. Its a matter of deciding who is not supposed to be here first, and then figuring out how to train the other ones.”
I observed one classroom full of silent high school students intently writing papers on laptops, but Hanna is hardly an advocate for an increasingly digital classroom. “If our kids can’t read, think creatively and solve problems, the fact they can push buttons on a computer doesn’t mean anything. I am all for adaptability, but you don’t need to readapt yourself every two years, based on contracts you have with tech corporations and how they think it will save education. I’ve been able to see many correlations between the defense establishment and education establishment—the notion that you need to have high tech and significant financial investment for armies or kids to succeed is total garbage.”
Lastly, as Cornerstone’s name indicates, Hanna believes a Christ-centered leadership model produces a scholar and citizen-leader who will give sacrificially to the community. “I understand being a leader through the lens of Scripture, specifically, I’m here to serve, not be served. . . . We aren’t a charter school by design. We are able to point to the leadership model Christ provided, which is the way we want our students to study and learn. Education is our primary mission, but part of the role of this school is for the Gospel to go forth in this community. 52 percent of adults in Anacostia are functionally illiterate. How can they hold a pastor accountable? How can they read the Bible? We want to equip our kids to do that.”
Walking out of the building, I noticed a bulletin board, covered over with construction paper and glitter glue, with a verse from the book of Isaiah in the center, one of the many that kids at Cornerstone memorize throughout the year. “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
David Wilezol is a graduate student in Latin and a producer for Morning In America, a nationally syndicated radio show hosted by former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. Follow him and his work on Twitter at @DavidWilezol.