Photo/Becca King

Cornerstone Academy Inspires Change in Youth by Seeing Potential Through Students’ Eyes

Story by Lizz Dawson for YRK Magazine

Every Thursday, Cornerstone’s “Morning Meeting” without a rap song, written and guided by Zachary Zortman, is met with a room full of disappointed kids. As the behavioral specialist at Cornerstone Academy, Zachary knows that what is most effective in helping the children he works with is finding what motivates and inspires them — and meeting them on their level. By getting to know them and their interests, they feel heard and understood, sometimes for the first time.

What Is Cornerstone Academy?

Cornerstone Academy is a Tier III academic and behavioral program of York City School District which works to intervene and support children with behavioral, emotional and academic needs. It’s the third tier for students in grades 1 to 9 in which needs-based adjustments that students’ home schools made for them in Tiers I and IIere not effective enough. Cornerstone uses a small, private classroom setting in York High School to work one on one with students, where they’re able to truly focus on what each child needs individually for success in academics and behavior.

Cornerstone isn’t a permanent placement, a punishment or alternative education. It’s a stepping stone, a way to provide the students in need of specific types of support with extra assistance. With behavior specialists, teachers and an in-house social worker, Cornerstone’s mission is to prepare its students with the skills and confidence necessary to meet their goals so that they can successfully transition back to schools in the district. As Zach puts it, “Our job is to see what our kids need to find success.”

How Cornerstone Found Success

What Cornerstone Academy has discovered is that learning to understand its students while helping them to understand that they have the ability to make changes has been paramount in making progress. Zachary has learned throughout his years as a behavioral specialist that being direct is more productive than being avoidant. And, often, the children he works with just need to know that someone cares about them. “These kids have gone through a lot, and it’s hard for them to trust people. It’s hard for them to behave a certain way, but the patience and the care of the teachers here is top notch.”

One of the most prominent techniques Zachary and the staff use is positive behavior reinforcement. Cornerstone has an animal system that staff members developed to reward positive behavior. The students start as geckos, then become dolphins, and eventually graduate to eagles. Zachary painted a giant mural of the animals in the classroom to motivate and remind the students, and he said it’s the small actions like the painting that prove to be invaluable.

Another fun technique that Zachary has initiated is his Morning Meeting raps. Each week, he writes a rap song with all the positive things the students do throughout the previous week. He then raps line by line, having the students parrot the raps back to him. Rap music may not always be his personal preference, he says; however, “The kids love it. And it works.”

Some other activities Cornerstone uses are dodgeball and baseball games, guest speakers and spelling and math bees. The staff at Cornerstone knows that getting students involved, working as a team and having students take interest in their learning process is crucial.

Embracing the Challenge

Zachary told us that although the job can be challenging, to say the least, it is always worth it. “Often, we’re presented with difficulties, but there’s a fantastic staff. We come in every single day and give it our all. I’m proud of our perseverance here and the care that our teachers, floor monitors and administrators show the students here at Cornerstone.”

While Zachary and the Cornerstone staff’s objective is to inspire students to make necessary changes, in the end, it is the kids who inspire them. “If I see a kid that can take in information and use it, to me that’s everything. And I’ve seen it over and over again,” Zachary says. It’s what makes his most challenging job to date also his most enjoyable. “I’m proud to be part of something that’s certainly challenging, but at the end of the day, when you’re able to connect with a child, it’s all worth it.”

22 May