Cornerstone: The Showplace of the Possible

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stepped off his “Partners in Progress” tour bus into a hero’s welcome at Cornerstone Preparatory Academy in Binghamton Wednesday. Children in shirts that said “Proving the Possible” waved pompons and roared when he came into sight.


“You are proving every single day what is possible,” Duncan told the crowd, standing in the heat and wiggly with adrenaline. “A lot of people might try to tell you what you can’t do. Don’t ever listen to that. Use that as fuel to drive you to keep going.


”Duncan wrapped up a three-day tour across Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee at Cornerstone — the former Lester School — to highlight each state’s commitment to school reforms that he says are designed to help every child succeed. He visited several Nashville schools Wednesday morning.


The visit at Cornerstone included an invitation-only town hall meeting in the packed school library. The guest list included parents, principals from schools that made double-digit gains on state tests, philanthropists and community organizers. The conversation was billed by Duncan’s press agents as a time for school leaders, parents, teachers and students to talk “about their experiences in the effort to transform struggling schools, close achievement gaps and better support teachers.”


It was congenial, although one man stood up at the end and asked, with all the attention on Frayser as “ground zero” in the school-turnaround effort here, why Duncan in his two visits to Memphis has not spent time there. “Usually my wife decides where I go,” Duncan quipped, but promised to take Frayser under consideration next time.


Tennessee is making the fastest gains in the nation in school improvement. While Duncan acknowledged that the gap is “still significant” and the state “has a long way to go,” he praised school leaders, including Achievement School District Superintendent Chris Barbic and Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson, principals and teachers for their contributions.If schools in Memphis can make their five-year goals, “I can’t tell you what that will mean, not just for the kids here but for kids all across the country,” Duncan said. “This is a really big deal.”


In a city wracked this week with the pain of youth crime, Duncan’s visit was reassuring proof that it is making progress in a long fight against a poorly-educated population.Cornerstone, a school the state took over two years ago while Binghamton warily watched, has become the showplace of what is possible.


“Two percent of the students were proficient in reading three years ago,” Barbic told the crowd. “In two years’ time, it has blown the roof off achievement, making 10-to-15-percent gains in some grades.”In scores from last spring’s TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program), 15.4 percent of the students were proficient in reading, up 11 percentage points. And more than 25 percent are on grade level in math, up nearly 20 percentage points.The chess program, now mandatory for every child at Douglass K-8, came from Lester School. In 24 months, Douglass has gone from the bottom five percent of schools in the state to the top five percent.


“Two years ago, none of our children knew how to play chess,” said principal Lionel Cable, a panelist in the town hall session. “Thirteen months later, they came in sixth (in a national competition). Twelve months after that, they came in second place,” he said to applause.The story fascinated Duncan. “Who would have predicted that three or four years ago? Were the kids suddenly chess geniuses? No, they simply had exposure,” he said. “When we have exposure and high expectation, our kids will always far exceed anything we are hoping for.”


But he also said most states are not “walking the walk” yet when it comes to placing the most talented teachers and principals in schools with the highest need, including impoverished urban schools, rural districts and Indian reservations where Duncan said the most needy are still not being served.


Shelby County gives high priority schools in its I-Zone (Innovation Zone) first pick of teachers and principals and offers financial incentives to staff who move to them. But the I-Zone faces federal cuts this year that may be a factor in those schools becoming charters.“It’s a strategy we talked about,” Hopson said later. “But it’s not the only strategy. There are a lot of factors to consider, including when we recruit high-achieving principals from other schools, we don’t have another leader ready to take their place.“The money is important, but that is a small part. It really comes down to principals and strong teachers. School leaders, I would say, are 50 percent of the equation. Strong teachers are 40 percent. The rest of the stuff, that 10 percent, money helps.”

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