Our son, who had just turned 5-years-old, started at Cornerstone in June 2009 by participating in the first ever “Down and Dirty” camp, featuring non-stop field trips (swimming, fishing, hiking), outdoor games and activities, art, writing, and more. Interwoven through the days and weeks were lessons that built on one another. The drawings that the “campers” made might build on wildlife that they observed or learned about while hiking. The journal writing would help them reflect on the day and what they saw. In short, fun and learning occurred at the same time. The school staff listened and watched all of them and did so with clear wonder and amazement. We’re biased—we think our child is the most amazing person in the world. So, we were won over when it became evident that everyone at Cornerstone agreed. Only, the truth is, as we discovered, they felt that way about all of the children. We knew then that Cornerstone indeed was the place for our family.
The themes that emerged from that summer experience provided an appetizer, of sorts, for what our son experienced in kindergarten and now in first grade. These themes, which are what keep us at Cornerstone, are too many to cover, but some bear particular mention. There is, for example, the integration of learning experiences. Lessons and activities in the “home” classroom build on and reinforce what occurs outside it in music, art, physical education, science, math, language instruction, cooking, acting, you name it. One of us teaches in a university setting and knows only too well how challenging it can be to create educational experiences that mirror those that happen at Cornerstone.
There is the emphasis on kindness and respect, which helps foster an environment conducive to learning. But not just learning. We think that the emphasis helps Cornerstone children to develop a positive self-image and an appreciation of the intrinsic value of others.
There is learning that is fun, learning that is built on evidence about effective teaching, learning that is grounded, to the extent possible, in individualized attention, learning that builds on the strengths of particular teachers and the dynamics particular to a specific group of students, and learning that is driven by a focus on curiosity and problem-solving—in short, lots of learning happens!
For us, the focus on learning, not tests, is central to the Cornerstone approach and its appeal to us. Tests are great when they measure what they are supposed to measure (many tests don’t pass that test). They are great when they provide feedback on areas of learning that need emphasis. They are great for many things, including accountability. But they are harmful when they fail in these ways and when they lead to “canned” lessons that risk driving curiosity and interest, and ultimately learning, out the door. Does testing occur at Cornerstone? Sure. Testing is important. But first comes the building blocks of lifetime learning, then testing.
Do we know that we’re at the right place? Yes. How will it all turn out for our son? We don’t know. For now, though, we have a son who loves going to school; he has teachers who are caring and understand him; he talks constantly about what he’s learned at school; he understands that some things take practice and time to learn; he appreciates that everyone has distinct personalities and backgrounds and that this diversity is life; he has friends, and parents of friends, who form a community in their own right; and he has a broader community who show in so many different ways that they care about him. We’d love to take credit for this wonderful person. But the truth is that so much of what he is comes from the place he calls Cornerstone.
That’s why we stay. — Emily Leventhal and Daniel Mears