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The Journal Gazette

  • Farrow

  • Underwood

Monday, October 02, 2017 1:00 am

Principal welcomes state grade

Cornerstone head predicting improvement after getting F

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

CORNERSTONE AT A GLANCE:

Number of vouchers:

2016-17 122

2015-16 127

2014-15 113

Enrollment:

2016-17 130

2015-16 134

2014-15 119

Funding from vouchers:

2016-17 $687,290

2015-16 $631,025

2014-15 $564,037

Most recent academic data:

2015-2016 report card: F

2016-2017 ISTEP+ : 71.4 per-cent passing rate

About this series

The Journal Gazette teamed up with HuffPost for an in-depth look at the School Choice Program, commonly referred to as vouchers. Stories by Journal Gazette reporters Niki Kelly, Ashley Sloboda and Rosa Salter Rodriguez and HuffPost reporter Rebecca Klein examine how the initial concept in Indiana expanded, the faith-based curriculum some schools use, whether vouchers are affecting the demographics of schools and where students with special educational needs attend, and the effect on home-school enrollment. We also profile two Fort Wayne schools and share the stories of students. An interactive online map allows you to click on Allen County schools to discover their demographics and other information. You can find the stories at

http://www.journalgazette.net/news/local/schools/vouchers

More than $3 million in taxpayer money has flowed in the past six years to a Fort Wayne private school whose accountability grade has never risen above an F.

Still, parents and students continue to flock to Cornerstone Christian College Prep at 3501 Harris Road on the city's near northwest side, where more than 90 percent of students are enrolled through state-paid vouchers.

Maiyah Farrow, who attended Cornerstone with a voucher, graduated last year and is now taking classes at Ivy Tech Community College. She attributes her success to the individualized attention she received at Cornerstone.

“Before I went to Cornerstone, I had trouble reading, and they tried to label me special ed in my former school. They didn't see any potential in me, but Cornerstone did,” she said. “It was a good environment. It was a Christian environment and I learned to live a Christian lifestyle.”

But CPrep – as its known to students and faculty – has delivered dismal academic results. At one point, just 23 percent of its third- through eighth-graders passed both the English and math portions of the state's standardized test, ISTEP+.

“It is not the students' abilities, even though I need to be honest with you that 90 percent who come to us have failed ISTEP in the public schools,” Principal Oscar Underwood said. “That's just one metric and we put so much focus on it. We are trying to help them learn and get on the path of personal empowerment.

“We're dealing with whole people and all of their experiences have not been equal,” he said. “Some have had to come through great challenges and they have shown great courage. They are not in gangs, not in the judicial system.”

The entrance to Cornerstone is a nondescript double glass door with a buzzer for entry. The carpet has seen better days, and the entryway on a late August afternoon was cramped as children waited for rides home.

The school has had between 101 and 130 students enrolled from kindergarten to 12th grade the past four years, and Underwood said the optimum number is in the 120s to keep classes small.

The students wear colorful backpacks and sport a uniform of khakis and solid-colored maroon, red or black shirts. All students are on free or reduced lunch, and 95 are black or multiracial. Last year, only one special-education student was enrolled. Those demographics have changed little in recent years. 

Cornerstone students take the ISTEP+, and the school receives an annual A-F accountability grade – the same as public schools. Another thing in common among the public and private schools is the level of criticism for state officials about state tests and the confusing grading system.

Cornerstone received an F in 2012. In the next three years – one of which Underwood said his students greatly improved on ISTEP+ – the Indiana Department of Education stopped issuing the school a letter grade because it did not have the minimum number of students required for reporting.

Under state law, voucher schools that receive consecutive D's or F's receive state sanctions: They aren't allowed to give vouchers to new students. That hasn't happened to Cornerstone but is a possibility when the A-F grades come out this year.

Underwood thinks Cornerstone's grade will go up. That's because newly released ISTEP+ scores show a dramatic jump for the Cornerstone students, with 71.4 percent passing both the English and math sections.

Underwood said he wants the Department of Education to follow through and grade the school because “CPrep, its parents, students, staff and community are committed to rigorous standards.”

He and the school's website claim a 99.4 percent graduation rate, with all who graduate being accepted to college.

Because of Cornerstone's small size, the Indiana Department of Education had to use two years' worth of data to calculate the school's graduation rate in 2014 and 2015. It reached only 36 percent.

But Department of Education staff verified that the spring 2016 graduation rate was 92.9 percent. A 2017 rate should be out by the end of the year. 

Tuition for this year is $5,885 for kindergarten through fifth grades and $6,655 for grades six through 12. Parents paying monthly pay an additional 2 percent.

The amount of voucher a parent receives depends on household income. For instance, a family of four making up to $44,955 can receive 90 percent of the per-student state funding of the public school the child otherwise would attend. A family of four with a household income of up to $89,910 can receive 50 percent of the amount.

Also, the amount varies depending on what district the student would otherwise attend and the school funding formula that lawmakers set for each year. 

The average voucher amount statewide in 2016-17 for the lowest-income participants in kindergarten was $4,447; $4,725 for grades one through eight; and $5,618 for grades nine through 12. The higher the income, the lower the choice scholarship.

Farrow said her mother wouldn't have been able to send her or her siblings to Cornerstone without the state aid.

“It made it possible for my family to have something different. It didn't seem attainable before,” she said. “It showed me that I have a future. I have the power to do anything.”

nkelly@jg.net