Tom Willis isn’t playing golf this summer. In a few weeks, Willis will open two new schools in Detroit, an elementary (opening K-4) and a high school (starting with ninth graders). CEO of the Cornerstone Charter Schools, Willis is a construction manager this month.

TVA: How is construction going?
TW: We’re on schedule to open August 28, 2012. Both schools will open in the same facility. The building will eventually become a K-8 for 600 students once the high school moves to another new facility in a couple years.

TVA: Is Cornerstone a startup?
TW: This will be our first blended high school, but we have a 20-year record of delivering high-quality Detroit schools. We have two existing charter schools serving 1,000 students. (Cornerstone Schools Association’s independent primary serves over 500 students and was named the #1 primary school in the city of Detroit by Excellent Schools Detroit (2010)).

TVA: What’s the elementary blended learning model?
TW: Each second to fourth grade class of 30 students will rotate through three stations in groups of 10. Two teachers share a para-professional. The youngest students will have a less frequent lab rotation.

TVA: How about the high school model?
TW: We’re really excited about the innovation built into the high school model! We started with a blank sheet of paper and asked ourselves, “What if we built a school around the needs of the students we will serve?” The school is a blend of online coursework, project-based coursework, and goal setting sessions. In pods of roughly 75 students, students will transition from Beginner and Intermediate levels to Advanced and Professional (they won’t use Freshman – Senior to shed that old paradigm), they take more responsibility for their own learning and progress.

TVA: How is staffing different than a traditional high school?
TW: We have three differentiated roles:

  • Relationship managers work with the student to set weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. Cornerstone has always put relationships first.
  • Relevance managers are subject matter experts who provide direct instruction and input into the curriculum. Their primary job is to make learning relevant to the real world.
  • Rigor managers support student progress in online coursework.

TVA: What content are you using?
TW: CompassLearning and Apex Learning primarily. We want to be flexible so we can adopt the best-in-class offerings as the providers evolve and improve every day. We will also use external assessments to keep us on track and keep ourselves and our providers honest.

TVA: Who are your partners?
TW: We’ve had some wonderful partner. These include Grand Valley State University (GVSU), The Detroit Medical Center (DMC), The Peter’s Foundation, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC),Michigan Future Schools, Fifth Third Bank, NGLC (Gates Foundation), Dr. Robert Sommers, and the list goes on.

TVA: That must have been a boost to win an NGLC grant (where I was a judge) .
TW: Amazing really! Plugging in to the Next Gen network was a timely boost. Applying helped us focus our plans, and the connections to the Gates Foundation and other NGLC partners have been valuable.

TVA: Will you open more schools?
TW: Our focus is to grow to serve as many students as we can in a high-quality way. We plan to open two more schools in the next few years which should enable us to serve over 2500 students.

For more info, call 248 439-6228 or see the websites:

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Tom Vander Ark is author of Difference Making at the Heart of Learning, The Power of Place, Better Together, Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and serves on the boards of Education Board Partners, 4.0 Schools, Digital Learning Institute, Latinx Education Collaborative, Mastery Transcript Consortium and eduInnovation. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.


  1. […] Cornerstone has a 20-year record of delivering high-quality Detroit schools. BrainHoneyhosts learning content including Compass Learning, Apex, Revolution Prep, and Achieve 3000. To progress students must show mastery on a variety of assessments. Progress is noted on dashboards and reviewed weekly with a Relationship Manager. Differentiated roles also include Rigor Managers and Relevance Managers. Cornerstone Charter Health High School has a close partnership with the Detroit Medical Center. “Throughout their academic experience, students are encouraged to explore health- related careers and competencies through projects, coursework, and internships.” (See a Getting Smart feature.) […]


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