Cornerstone Youth Center: An Alternative to Fail

“Proverbs says, ‘Where there is no vision the people perish.’ The Cornerstone Youth Center provides its students with a vision to work toward and a means to keep from perishing.” — Pat Sweeny, JTPA education specialist.

As a program created for young people who have trouble in regular high schools. Cornerstone helps students develop a vision of a viable future and the means to achieve it. The average Cornerstone student enters the school with a fifth grade reading level. Most Cornerstone students (95% of whom are black) have experienced some combination of poverty, low self-esteem, gang involvement, substance abuse, and early parenthood.

Cornerstone’s three teachers help the 45 students attending acquire basic academic competencies and the social skills necessary to get and keep jobs. In addition, the school sponsors a drama club and a basketball team, and plans to offer piano and guitar lessons as well as a child development class. All students participate in a daily student government meeting. Cornerstone works in partnership with the Milwaukee Public Schools. A typical student will be in the program for about nine months, earning high school credits and strengthening skills, and then transfer to a regular MPS high school to finish earning a diploma. 

We talked with Denise Crumble, Cornerstone’s director.

R.S.: What kind of student centered problems have you had at the school and how have you dealt with them?

Denise: We’ve had the whole range. We’ve had the gang problem. We are in the middle of everybody’s gang turf. At one time there were about four gangs that were active in the neighborhood. Two groups, the Vice-Lords and the Disciples, used to graffiti up all the desks and all the clothes. They had those hats that they wore tilted to one side or the other. We had students that were being beaten up after school when they left here. They didn’t fight so much here, but there was the threat of that going on. There was a lot of tension. They had spray painted all the halls and the rec room with black spray paint. We were spending so much money on paint that it was kind of ridiculous. The staff was always trying to paint the walls and keep things clean . We didn’t have the foresight to make it the students’ issue. We were cleaning up for them and they just kept messing the place up. Finally, I reached the breaking point and hauled both the groups out of class. I told them they had to clean it up and they all said they didn’t do it.

I told them they should let their friends know they can’t be painting up our walls.

Clarence Nicholas, our MPS teacher, brought in people from both gangs on a Saturday to clean the place up. This was a turning point for us. We said, “We really don’t care what gang you’re in and which direction your hat goes in. When you come here, you’re going to be a Cornerstone student, period.” When we took that posture, we saw it dissipate. We have lost, quite a few of the students-that were very, very heavily gang-involved.

R.S.: Besides banning gang behavior from the school, are there other ways that you help students deal with gang involvement?

Denise: We talk to students about the assumptions people make about them. Some were identifying with the culture of the gang that was active in their neighborhood in order to keep the gang off their back and because it was cool. When they told adults about their gang involvement they would get a reinforcing over-reaction. So we stopped giving it any validation here. We let them know that we considered them to be young people in the process of growing up and that they didn’t have to act like street toughs to be comfortable in our school.

We try to maintain professionalism and a professional distance. At the same time we want the kids to see us as role models and people they can come to when they have a problem. We want them to know that we are the adults in charge, and that they are not in charge.

R.S.: To promote what you consider an appropriate atmosphere, you’ve put some restrictions on how students are allowed to dress and act. Aren’t these restrictions a violation of a student’s personal freedom?

Denise: I guess they would be if we just handed-them down and said this is The Divine Law. But we got together with the students and said “What can we do to alleviate this gang problem? What can we do so that you all get along with each other?” They helped us to come up with the rules. We have about 14 rules and the students came up with at least 8 or 9 of those. 

​​R.S.: Can you tell us some of the rules that the students came up with?

Denise: Some of the rules are: mutual respect among students and-staff, no weapons (if a student pulls out a weapon at Cornerstone they are kicked out and they can never come back), no sexual contact, and they are not supposed to date each other. They can’t wear hats or paint any kind of gang graffiti, or have any gang markings on their clothes or folders. No gang signifying is allowed. They’ve made these rules and as the director it is my job to enforce the rules.

R.S.: How else do you involve students in making decisions and solving problems? 

Denise: Our Student Government meets every day. (The student government has five elected officers who conduct the meetings). They work on the issues that they think are important, such as not having I.D.s or wanting a lunch program, or wanting to upgrade the image of the students in the community, or feeling like we’re coming down on them too hard. The students this year are going to get training in mediation and we’re going to have some peer mediators that are part of the student government.

R.S.: How does your program help students cope with racism and sexism?

Denise: Clarence Nicholas, our MPS teacher, does an awful lot in the area of Afro-American Studies. He talks a lot about the civil rights struggle and the history of black Americans.

As a staff we are committed to promoting non-sexist interactions between each other, because if your staff has all these sexist interactions your student body is going to have them. Clarence brings his children up until the time. The students have a chance to see him as a father nurturing his little boy and his two daughters. I bring my kids up. We talk about sex roles. If we notice that the guys are being a little bit disrespectful to the young women we might deal with the young meh by saying this is inappropriate and we’re not going to tolerate it. We might at the same time say to the young women, “You have to stick up for yourselves. You don’t have to tolerate that.”

R.S.: What sort of conflict-resolution experiences have you had with your female students?

Denise: I think that young women are groomed to compete with each other, particularly for male attention. These young women are no different from adult women, except that they manifest this issue in sometimes” real violent ways. There is also, the problem of the girls that are involved in the gang subculture or that are getting involved with drugs. We did have a situation up here a few months ago with some young women coming from North Division High School to jump on girls that attended school here. They came up here two days in a row to fight our students and our students were having their parents come up and get them every day, I got wind of this and I confronted the girls from North Division and they claimed they were just coming to meet this guy up here. I got them to confess that they were coming up here to fight. I talked them into coming up here after school so that we could mediate the fight. When we met, the two groups started out really being mean to each other, calling each other ‘bitches’ under their breaths.

It was not just a problem of them competing with each other, but also of them having to squash their emotions in a lot of ways, so that when they do get to the point that they are expressing anger, they really get out of hand with it. It was one of the longest mediations I’ve ever done. It was touchy for me because at one point I asked them, “If somebody calls you a bitch do you really have to fight?,” and out of seven girls, all but the last one said they had to. Finally they started comparing notes on the guy they were fighting over. We discussed how they were being manipulated by other students and finally I made them hug. With male or female students, some kind of physical contact really dissipates a lot of anxiety and frustration. They ended up exchanging phone numbers and plotting to get this guy later on. I advised them against this but I don’t think they listened. They left here laughing.

R.S: How can teachers help high school students resolve conflicts with each other?

Denise: I think that kids have a real hard time talking to each other and talking to adults. We’ve been told in this society that we really shouldn’t talk about our feelings a whole lot. Kids don’t feel that it is legitimate for them to feel angry. There is a certain amount of guilt associated with feeling angry. They don’t want to say to someone, “I’m real angry at you and I want you to do something different.” So they just let things build up, and then they fight. Sometimes kids who have had violent home situations or have had a lot of problems may want to fight for that reason.

As a staff, we’ve been successful in getting kids to talk to each- other, and letting them know we take their concerns seriously. We tell students when they enroll here, “If someone does something as minor as roll their eyes at you and you feel that you can’t talk to them about it, enlist our help;” I keep this little chalkboard in my office. (Note: The board has written on it “When you __________, it makes me feel __________. I would like you to __________.”) If two students aren’t getting along, in many cases they will ask for help. I ask them to first say something positive about the other person. Then to say “When you…” and talk about the specific behavior they are having the problem with. After they describe this behavior, I get them to say how it makes them feel— “I’m angry, or Pm hurt, or I’m embarrassed, or I’m disappointed.” Then they make a request for how they would like the issue resolved and that is usually the beginning of a dialogue.

Again, physical contact is important. Many kids go through this period of their life with nobody touching them in a platonic way. Parents back off from touching them in some cases, and they crave that from each other and from the teaching staff here. So I encourage them to touch each other we get the females to hug each other, and the guys to shake hands because it’s harder to get them to hug.

R.S.: What do you think has made your program successful;?

Denise: Having a caring staff, teachers who enjoy the jobs that they do and like the kind of students they are working with. All of us act as counselors as well as teachers. Some students see me as too much of an authority figure to approach a problem, but they will confide in someone else on staff.

It also helps to be part of the Next Door Foundation, which offers Cornerstone students parenting programs, out-patient drug treatment, recreational services, an opportunity to do volunteer work, spiritual support through a chaplain, and employment services.

R.S.: How has working at Cornerstone affected your life?

Denise: Being a feminist in my thirties who grew up during the 1960’s, it’s wonderful to get paid for acting on my ideals. I was one of those students in high school who could have very easily dropped out. I got out of high school by the skin of my teeth. I tested at the top of my high school class and graduated at the bottom of it. I feel like I really understand young people I work with. I am challenged by the job of trying to get them to feel excited about school again. My reward comes when I see a group of Students staying behind during a break to finish their math problems, or when I run into a former Cornerstone student who is now a political science major involved in UWMs black student paper and interested in volunteering at Cornerstone.

Rethinking Schools interview conducted by David Levine.