“The Oasis“

"The Oasis"

During January, I had the opportunity to visit Tallahassee’s “Cornerstone Learning Community,” an oasis of love, experiment and investigation, actual respect for each individual person, and a sense of responsibility for the larger human and natural communities. I interviewed two of the school’s founders, Betsey and Tony Brown, spoke with parents, teachers, and students and felt I had stumbled upon that rarest of beasts: good news.

When young parents Betsey and Tony Brown moved to Tallahassee from Seattle in the late 1990’s, they were dismayed by the absence of public schools like those they had known in Seattle where they had owned a book warehouse for teachers that sold to classrooms and had seen a “literature-rich” approach to education. Betsey was also nostalgic for the Manhattan Country School, a progressive K-8 school she had attended as a child.

MCS was founded during the civil rights era and its core principles were social justice, kids’ activism and a social studies-based curriculum. MCS also offered a farm component with one-week trips to its farm in the Catskills, an eye-opening experience for the city-dwelling students. Betsey’s mother, early childhood educator Sara Wilford, Director of Sarah Lawrence College’s Early Childhood Center for 21 years and a staunch proponent of “student-centered learning,” was also a major source of inspiration and guidance. Tony, a high school and community college English teacher originally from Tallahassee, helped Betsey bring together a group of parents who wanted a different kind of school and a core group of teachers interested in developing a pre-to-middle school based on the MCS ideals of social justice and kids’ activism, but with a curriculum focused around science. April Penton, the director of a well-respected preschool and proponent of child-centered education, and key members of her staff also helped develop the vision for the school. Parents and teachers met in the Browns’ living room and other folks’ homes. In their first year, 1999, they had about 20 students. Then they had the opportunity to rent-to-buy their current campus property, five acres within the city limits in Tallahassee’s most racially and socio-economically diverse neighborhood that fit the goals the founders had for the school’s population.

Prospective Parent in Tears

One parent reported, “On my first visit to Cornerstone as a prospective parent, I left the classroom after sitting in on a lesson weeping. It seemed like this was what I had always imagined learning could be like, but it never was.”

Another said on her son’s “first day, he came home and immediately announced ‘I got to take apart a VCR, and they have wire cutters!’ “

The same student, now in middle school, notes, “I like it that we are running a business (the egg business), but it eats up so much classwork time. If I had more time, I’d use it to work on other projects like our activism research project. (social studies)”

A second grader, “the thing I like most about Cornerstone is the teachers.”

The school’s critical values are:

  • High academic expectations (as would be expected simply from parents’ socio-economic backgrounds and involvement, standardized test scores are consistently in the ninetieth percentiles for math and reading across the grades).
  • Diversity.
  • Social and environmental responsibility.
  • Developmentally appropriate challenges achieved through an inquiry-based approach to all subjects.

Concretely, this approach seems to work out such that teachers are as much or more coaches and guides than repositories of knowledge and drill sergeants. Tony Brown maintains that teachers honor and know each child, don’t feel that they have all the answers and see their jobs as helping children find their own way – getting out of the way rather than providing answers.

Cornerstone Learning Community’s Big Green Bus

Piling as much of the school as will fit into Cornerstone Learning Community’s “Big Green Bus” and setting off on social and environmental justice missions is a community tradition. (Photo: John Hanson/ Truthout)

Cornerstone provides teachers with an extraordinary degree of autonomy in shaping the direction of the school, as teachers are responsible for the continuous creation of curriculum up to certain standards in each area. In the sciences, this means “teaching kids to think like scientists” as well as meeting national and Florida state standards. In language arts, this means taking a developmental approach combining phonic, sight word and aural approaches to reading to different degrees up to fourth or fifth grade and using a whole language approach with lots of exposure to literature at all levels. Middle school students are expected to read 10 to 30 books a year. The basic math curriculum is from the University of Chicago with daily math lessons and exercises. Applied math is taught throughout the curriculum, as in the egg business project cited above. Classes design their contribution to the school’s garden or to such social justice projects as providing a hot meal for the local homeless shelter.

By middle school, classes are intentionally structured to elicit independence from students who are engaged to find higher and higher levels of individual challenge. Concretely, this means, in Language Arts for example, that in addition to a common class topic, middle school students maintain a computer journal of self-selected writing topics and work on grammar and vocabulary they pick themselves or diagnostic tests have indicated they need to work on. The teacher’s role is to guide students’ passion and assure no one “gets stuck.”

The campus itself, with its gardens, kitchen, labs and work rooms, animals in every classroom, is a sort of living curriculum. The second-grade class made jam from the kumquat tree in the playground and sold it to raise funds. Children have been part of the campus landscaping, which artfully uses drainage to create micro-climate gardens receptive to different kinds of crops. Cornerstone became the first solar schoolhouse in Leon county, and this practice of modeling the values the school professes makes the social as well as the physical community the core curriculum. Parents, students and teachers interact with enthusiasm and respect: the way a casual school tour was conducted communicated and exemplified connection, warmth and excitement, collaboration and a shared sense of responsibility. Open communication, trust and affection were apparent in these interactions I witnessed, as well as in student-teacher correspondence that was shared with me: the chess club mentor who asked both my different age guides about their pet projects, the teacher poring over his own work in an empty classroom, who immediately rose to greet and talk with the young guides and the visitor in depth, everyone making eye contact, being included in the conversation.

Cornerstone teachers revel in the freedom, responsibility and creativity this formula requires, although some initially found the curriculum development demands taxing and all profess to continuous experimentation that models lifetime learning. As small as it is, the school budgets support for each teacher’s personal development and maintains an “Art of Teaching” fund that bestows grants for more expensive professional development such as graduate courses or participation in national conferences. The entire staff meets regularly and reads faculty-chosen materials together to improve collaboration. Each year, the staff focuses on one broad topic for investigation, currently “inquiry-based learning.” One education professor at Florida State University sends his students to Cornerstone for volunteer time. FSU speech and language students work with students, and teaching internships are part of Cornerstone’s active reciprocity with the wider community.

Because there is no entrance exam, some students enter with learning challenges and Cornerstone measures its success by the growth of each child over his or her time with the school. Cornerstone’s graduates reportedly flourish at the charter and other public high schools that 95 percent matriculate to, as well as at the private prep schools where the remainder go.

There’s a Reason Cornerstone’s Called a “Community”

One seventh grader explained to me how his class had worked out the menu to feed 50 people on $50 at the Hope Community, a family homeless and transition shelter. When I asked the Browns about the program, they explained that part of what was important to them about the cooperation with Hope was that there was not just a drop-off of the food: middle schoolers go to the Hope Community once a month and prepare lunch. In the past, students had served the meals at another – adult – shelter which had been more exposure to certain realities than some parents had been comfortable with.

Apart from this ongoing partnership, each class taking responsibility for certain aspects of ongoing campus upkeep and community administration, the community manning phones during the WFSU pledge drive and other services to the larger community, Cornerstone has been involved in a few social activist projects that grew out of science study.

Fourth and fifth grade study of turtles led to students learning about how many are killed as they cross the highway to lay eggs. For eight years, Cornerstone students lobbied for a safer way for the animals to get across the highway, attending county commission meetings, writing letters and calling their representatives, until a new turtle passage was finally approved, to be funded out of federal stimulus funds.

A study of the relationship between the long leaf pine and water systems led to efforts to restore and protect longleaf habitat and plant new trees. At least 10,000 long leaf pines have been planted as a result of this program.

Even the school’s recreation activities have resulted in activism. Cornerstone’s big three-day all-school trip every year was to the Joe Budd Aquatic Education Center outside of Tallahassee. Half science program and half recreation, as students both learned about aquatic ecology and fished for catfish, the trip was a high point of the school year. In 2004, when Joe Budd was poised to lose its state funding – and consequently federal matching funds – first-grade teacher Beverly Wells informed the students, whose immediate and overwhelming response was, “We’ve got to do something about it.” Learning about how grassroots activism really works, students wrote letters to state representatives and senators, the governor and the newspapers. Middle schoolers met with state senators and representatives and the whole school went to the Capitol, where they demonstrated with signs the students had made. Joe Budd’s funding was ultimately restored and the students were totally energized by seeing that they could make a difference and have an impact on their world.

That ability for the whole school to respond to a perceived community need by piling into the school’s “big green bus” to do something remains, but “requires more planning” than it did in the early years, says Betsey Brown, some of whose favorite memories of the school’s early days include the outdoor classrooms at the farm in south Georgia where the whole school decamped after 9/11 and some bomb scares in 2001.

Business Model Blues

Ultimately, Cornerstone has not been able to draw from its Tallahassee neighborhood as much as was hoped: the MCS economic model of tuition as a true sliding-scale percentage of parent income did not prove feasible in more conservative twenty-first century Tallahassee. Tuition, ranging between $3,870 for a three-year-old’s half day of school to $6,110 for a single middle school student, is “absurdly low” to one parent graduate of Northeastern prep schools, but clearly beyond the means of most. It compares to the average $6,326 the Tallahassee public school district spends per pupil. When Cornerstone was founded, charter schools were new to Florida; the founders “did not want to be bound by high-stakes testing (Florida’s FCAT) and were concerned that ongoing funding might be subject to political whim.” Today, obtaining a charter would involve completely shutting down the school, getting a new staff and subjecting current families to a lottery, obviously not a route the school is willing to pursue.

With 161 students versus a current capacity for 200, most of the school’s lower grades are full and the middle school not. Twenty-five percent of parents are FSU professors. The school is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit with no debt: the gap between tuition and cost is made up by an annual campaign, some Florida state programs – notably one supporting disabled students (IEP students comprise 10-15 percent of the student body) – and by some deep pockets within Cornerstone’s close “family” community.

Three sources of assistance are available to families who cannot pay full tuition:

  • Florida’s Mckay Scholarship program, which provides tuition and support-services funding for students who transfer from a public school with an IEP.
  • Florida’s corporate income tax scholarship program that provides funding for families with low income levels.
  • Cornerstone’s financial assistance program based on families’ ability to pay, but limited to the amount of money the school is able to raise from an annual auction and from other outside donations (typically in the $15,000-$20,000 range).

The Browns are considering applying for grants as a “lab” or “model” school, but have not yet done so. Appeals to the Tallahassee business community and mainstay local philanthropic sources have been limited as much by Cornerstone’s maverick inclinations as by the markedly more liberal philosophy and politics the school espouses compared to other private or charter area schools – or the north Florida community in general.

“Diversity” has sometimes been turned on its head in surprising ways, as when Northeastern liberal parents confess to being floored by the environmental awareness and passion displayed by parents from Southern plantation families or by fears expressed by black middle-class families that the academic standards are not rigorous enough. Still, everyone I spoke to readily admittedly that poor students and students of color are underrepresented in the student body and the current business model is unlikely to allow the school to meet the ideals of its own social model.

While there seems to be agreement that Cornerstone needs to expand its funding sources, exactly how to do that within the scrupulous integrity of character the school has staked out for itself does not yet seem clear. It is easy for some progressives to reject the whole concept of private schools – and often for good reason when these are the factories of elitism in contrast to the factories of coercion reserved for poor students – but it seems clear that the bright experiment that Cornerstone represents could not have been developed any other way in its time and location. Many schools espouse values similar to those of Cornerstone, but this community’s embodiment of those values, particularly the joy of learning and the primacy of human dignity, make it an oasis in our society and a model for the kind of education that could and should be possible for all.