Placing the Cornerstone Newport developers hope school will retain residents, attract new ones

W hen the Cornerstone School was founded by Jersey City-based educator Susanne Chopp in 1987, it occupied a brownstone at the corner of Bergen and Duncan avenues and enrolled seven children from across Jersey City.

Compelled by the recent state takeover of the Jersey City public school system, Chopp took matters into her own hands, and with the help of her mother, offered her K-8 students a comprehensive curriculum that included subjects like Latin and violin.

Even after finding the time and energy to bus her students to and from school every day, her ingenuity extended into her administrative tasks. She reportedly used a dishwasher as her first filing cabinet.

Despite her untimely death in 1992 to breast cancer, Chopp’s dedication to providing Jersey City children of all ethnic and economic backgrounds access to a quality education prevailed. After outgrowing the building on Bergen Avenue eight years ago, the school was moved to 2737 Kennedy Blvd., located in the heart of the city between McGinley and Journal squares.

At that point, under the guidance of Chopp’s sister Marianne, the non-profit school hired a new administrator and expanded its operations.

Enrollments kept increasing, and the school’s board of trustees soon realized that it needed to find another space. When the trustee board discovered that the landlord – who was renting the space to Cornerstone on a month-to-month basis – was looking for a tenant who could pay more in rent, its members knew that they would have to immediately secure a new space.

School representatives scoured the city looking for an adequate place to set up shop, considering abandoned buildings and warehouses as possible alternatives. And just when the situation was at its most bleak, the school experienced a windfall.

When the school contacted Newport developer the Lefrak Organization to see if they had space to rent, Jamie LeFrak told a school representative that the company was also looking to open a school at Newport.

"We couldn’t believe what we were hearing," trustee board president Esther Wintner said Tuesday. "It was like the impossible dream. We never could have imagined that this was going to happen. I made the call to Newport thinking, ‘What do we have to lose at this point?’ It’s like hitting the lottery."

A mutual reward

But the Lefrak Organization is also benefiting from the partnership, said Jamie Lefrak of the Lefrak Organization. It had been looking to place a school at Newport for two years, in a search Lefrak described as an attempt to thwart a disturbing trend that affects almost all urban communities across the country.

"It’s the common experience for every city in America that parents move to the suburbs when their kids reach school age," Lefrak said. "And I think [Newport has] had a similar experience, although probably less pronounced than any other city in the country. It’s a persistent American urban problem because there aren’t enough rooted families in urban areas. And cities need a rooted middle-class to survive. Hopefully we can start, at least in a very small way, to reverse that trend."

Lefrak said the average age of Newport residents is 28 and that "there are a lot of ‘under-sixers,’ " a term that refers to the age of renters’ children. But when those children reach school age, their parents generally opt to move out of Jersey City and westward into suburban communities like Maplewood with safer and more academically rigorous schools.

To combat Newport residents’ flight to suburbia, Lefrak is facilitating Cornerstone’s move by building a 15,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art facility on the second floor of the new building under construction at 100 Pavonia Ave. In addition to large classrooms overlooking the Hudson River, students will be also be able to enjoy rooms exclusively dedicated for music, art and computer instruction.

Designed by architect and Cornerstone parent David Korn, the space reflects the most enduring component of Susanne Chopp’s teaching philosophies: nurturing and interaction.

"Because it’s a small school, they have the older grades mentoring the younger grades and helping them with their reading and [other] things," Korn said. "One of the things they would need is a communal space. We have all the individual classrooms around the communal space, if you want to call it a ‘town square’ space. [It’s a] place where all the children can interact. I think it’s a good opportunity to reinforce to the younger kids the older kids as role models."

Korn, a Wayne Street resident who works for Manhattan-based WPG Design Group, said his design was meant to emphasize the nurturing environment at the school. Upon entering the school from its private entrance facing the public space Lefrak calls the ‘town square,’ visitors will come up to an antechamber where the school’s administrative offices will be located.

"[In the new school,] that sense of intimacy will still be there," Wintner added. "The little ones will know the big ones and everyone will know everyone. We’re still going to maintain that one thing that’s precious to the school."

Diversity and selectivity

When the Cornerstone School started 16 years ago, Susanne Chopp took in Jersey City children from Greenville to Downtown. As the school grew, parents in other Hudson municipalities like Hoboken, Weehawken and West New York began sending their children to Cornerstone. Some kids even came from suburban parents who worked in Jersey City.

"In terms of income, it’s across the board," Wintner said. "We have some very high-income families and very low-income families. And we give financial aid to families who can’t afford the school. When you walk in, you can see that this is a very diverse population."

Current Head of School Torrance Burrowes, a Brooklyn native who has worked at independent schools for 30 years, said entry into the school is contingent upon an interview process that focuses mainly on the student’s ability to handle the academic courseload the school offers.

For upper grades, there is a placement exam that incorporates a writing sample and a mathematics aptitude test. Records from previous schools – like report cards and progress reports – are also considered.

For this school year, Burrowes said that the school has fielded 33 inquiries, of which more than half have been accepted. Those 33 new enrollments bring the number of current students up to 110, Burrows added. The school has a maximum of 160 seats.

Educational strategy

Burrowes said that the school’s hybrid approach to teaching is what sets them apart.

"We try to say we take the best of traditional education and blend it with the best of progressive education," he said. "Traditional in the sense that we still believe in a ‘five minute time-out’ [when students misbehave] and progressive in that our approach to education is thematic."

Wintner said, "One grade was studying rivers and how they studied was that they started off by studying the Hudson. And based on the Hudson, they were able to talk about history and science, and from there they bridged into Egypt. They studied Egyptian history and the Nile and how the people used the river for agriculture and transportation. That’s how the school works."

The school’s 12 teachers and aides also involve students from upper grades into the instruction of their elementary students.

Statistics show that 85 percent of Cornerstone students test above grade level in reading and mathematics, and all of last year’s graduates were accepted by their first-choice high schools.

But will it keep families there? Some not sure

Some parents who currently live at Newport, however, aren’t overwhelmingly enthused about Cornerstone’s arrival in their community.

Some Newport parents said that although they thought Lefrak was on the right track in bringing a school to the to their neighborhood, the Cornerstone School isn’t the long-awaited educational facility that would keep them in Jersey City.

"It’s not a registered school," Riverside building resident Ritika Pahwa said. "The program isn’t recognized by the state."

Although Pahwa and her investment banker husband Sandeep have only lived in Newport for two weeks, they said they are already anticipating leaving when their oldest child, 4 year-old Shray, gets ready to go to kindergarten. Neither the Cornerstone School nor any other schools nearby are of adequate quality, they said.

"This is a kick-ass location and these are great apartments," Sandeep Pahwa said. "It’s a shame."

Toshiba Tewari, a Southampton building resident for two and a half years, said she also feels that Cornerstone isn’t enough for what she and her husband are looking for.

"The most important thing is a quality education," Tewari said. I’ve done my research [on Cornerstone] and I’m not satisfied. And I know personally of eight to 10 women who feel the same way."

Another Southampton resident, Smriti Kumar, echoed Tewari’s statement. "I’m not sure about this school," Kumar said.

Burrowes said he understands how important accreditation is to an independent school. He himself was surprised the school wasn’t accredited when he came on board.

"The school at one time had membership to the New Jersey Association of Independent Schools [NJAIS], but the school board felt there was no need for it. Basically, it comes down to philosophy. Some schools feel that to be a part of an affiliated membership is good. Other people have that independent spirit where they think, ‘we stand on our own merits.’ I feel it’s important that we’re a part of a colleague of schools."

The school is now pursuing accreditation through the NJAIS, which first involves applying for membership. Once the school is a member, it is then eligible for the accreditation process.

A committee comprised of other independent school educators comes to the school and evaluates. Burrowes said the NJAIS is already familiar with Cornerstone because of its past membership, but this year they will be looking at the school in its new location and under Burrowes’ new leadership.

Burrowes said he doesn’t foresee any problems with the school being granted accreditation.

"It’s just a matter of putting all the required paperwork together," he said. "Going through the whole accreditation process is becoming part of an establishment. Now the board is very supportive of it. Accreditation brings with it not only the added weight of validating what you do academically, but also foundations that may contribute funds [to your school] do so based on the fact that you are an accredited organization and that you are a member of a state-wide or national organization."

"There are many, many advantages to accreditation," Burrowes added. "The greatest aspect of the accreditation process is that you get reviewed by your peers, people that work in independent schools like yours. I’ve been a part of it so that’s why I get excited."

An added incentive

To further entice Newport residents to enroll their children, the Cornerstone School is offering a Newport Scholarship that will reduce the school’s annual $7,000 tuition by 20 percent.

"Tuition [at Cornerstone] is extremely reasonable," Lefrak said. "With the Newport discount, it’s about one-fifth the price of Manhattan schools."

The school will also continue offering after school enrichment programs specializing in subjects like chorus, piano, fencing and Tae Kwon Do. The school will continue its relationship with the Newport Swim and Fitness Center in providing physical education facilities for its children, but the travel time next year will be considerably shorter. The fitness center is located just around the block.

"We intend to maintain the school’s academic quality and improve it," Wintner said. "Having all the resources [Lefrak is providing us] will help the faculty achieve that."

But amid the excitement of moving into a bigger and better home, school officials express a bit of apprehension as to how the school will adjust to its new high-tech digs.

"We’ll see what the next school year brings in terms of our transition period," Wintner added. "It’s like a mom-and-pop shop moving into the big time. It’s a big step for a little school.".

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