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Cornerstone seeks to merge three schools in a turnaround bid. Will its authorizer agree?

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Cornerstone Schools, one Detroit’s charter school networks, wants to consolidate three schools into one new K-12 program in what its leaders say is an effort to boost flagging academic performance.

The network is asking Grand Valley State University to authorize a new school called Lincoln-King Adams-Young Academy, which would have an anticipated enrollment of 1,400 students across three campuses. The school would replace Cornerstone Health and Technology High School, Lincoln-King High School, and the network’s Adams-Young elementary building. Students currently attending school in those buildings would mostly be able to stay in place, though most would see major changes to school leadership and staff. Teachers at the schools being consolidated would receive offer letters to join the new school, Cornerstone officials said.

Trustees of the Grand Rapids-based university, which oversees Cornerstone and dozens of other charter schools in Detroit, will vote on the proposal on Friday.

The changes come after GVSU officials called Cornerstone Health and Technology High School, which would close under the plan, a “weaker school” due to poor test scores and high teacher turnover.

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Cornerstone has no plans to change its curriculum or emphasis on character-building — its schools mostly perform above average in Detroit, although well below the statewide average.

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The network’s founder is betting that changes in network leadership will convince the authorizing university to go along with the plan.

Clark Durant, 72, founded Cornerstone as a chain of private schools before converting them in 2009 to publicly funded charters. In January 2020, he took over as CEO of the Cornerstone Education Group, the nonprofit that runs five schools in Detroit.

He said he expects GVSU’s trustees to sign off on the restructuring plan because “I’m coming back to be the CEO with an enormous mission focus and outcome focus for these kids.”

In hiring new school administrators and staff, “I’m looking for people who no longer see this as a job, but as a real calling and are prepared to spend the time, and the energy, and the commitment, to change the reality for these children,” Durant said.

The university’s charter schools office staff is supportive, saying the changes are designed to be minimally disruptive to families.

Don Cooper, assistant vice president for charter schools at GVSU, noted that the changes would alter the oversight structure in the Cornerstone network by putting students in the new school under the authority of a single school board. Currently, Lincoln-King shares a school board with Washington-Parks Academy, another Cornerstone school. Cornerstone Health and Technology High School had its own school board.

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If the plan is approved, students from Lincoln-King High School, Cornerstone Health and Technology High School, and the network’s Adams-Young elementary campus will all technically attend the same school.

According to Cornerstone’s application to start the new school, students in grades K-8 would go to class in the current Adams-Young Building. The current Lincoln-King building would host students in 11th and 12th grades, and the current Cornerstone Health and Technology High School would host students in 9th and 10th grades.

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