Cornerstone Preparatory Academy: Top Small Workplace

Cornerstone Preparatory Academy teacher Terri Haas (right, CQ) talks to her students about the school's Hydroponic garden at the Acworth campus on January 25th, 2019. For AJC Top Workplaces story. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Cornerstone Preparatory Academy teacher Terri Haas (right, CQ) talks to her students about the school's Hydroponic garden at the Acworth campus on January 25th, 2019. For AJC Top Workplaces story. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

More than 4,300 companies were nominated or asked to participate in the 2019 Top Workplaces contest by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and its partner, Energage (formerly Workplace Dynamics). Employees across the metro area responded to print and online solicitations that began appearing in September. 

Using survey results, a list of 150 workplaces was compiled, consisting of 20 large companies (500 or more employees), 55 midsize companies (150-499 employees) and 75 small companies (149 or fewer employees). 

Freedom in the classroom and flexibility outside it are reasons teachers say they love working at Cornerstone Preparatory Academy.

The private Christian school in Acworth is so loved, its employees put it at the top of Atlanta’s small workplaces. That’s no small feat, considering the school wasn’t on last year’s list, and it finished 19th in 2017 and 23rd in 2016.

Of the school’s 67 employees, only four are full time despite an enrollment of nearly 500 students. Cornerstone uses the innovative K-12 university-model, where students attend classes two or three days a week, depending on their grade. Teachers are at school only when their students are in class.

At Cornerstone, seventh- through 12th-graders meet Monday, Wednesday and Friday; kindergartener through sixth-graders are there Tuesday and Thursday.

Head of School Jeanne Borders liked the university-model approach so much she retired from her five-day-a-week job at a Christian school in Cobb County so she could start Cornerstone.

“I felt like both as a mom of kids in private school and as a teacher, and then as an administrator, we had kids on an educational treadmill that kept getting faster and faster. They would work all day long at school and then they would go home and they would have hours of homework,” she said. “Was there a way that we could do school, college prep, that would allow us to have these kids have a life? Parents have time with their kids, be able to do sports and do all those kinds of things, so that’s what was intriguing to me about the model.”

Borders, winner of the 2019 Top Workplaces Leadership special award for small workplaces, has an open-door policy, is hands-on and shows attention to detail, employees say.

“It’s really a blessing, because you feel like you’ve got that camaraderie where you can stop in unannounced sometimes,” teacher Angela Eeles said. “Now, if it’s an issue that we need to take more time, you just send an email. She’s real quick at responding with an email. We feel acknowledged and appreciated.”

Caring environment

Employees describe the school’s environment as respectful, meaningful and caring. They also have high praise for the schedule flexibility, which allows them time for family and themselves.

Those who want to work additional days can do so without giving up the flexibility. Eeles, for example, teaches seventh-grade English on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and fourth-grade science on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.

“On my half day, I can be home before I come into work and have some time to do personal things,” she said. “It makes it enjoyable because I think it helps me feel more balanced.”

When Landon Cunningham started working at Cornerstone in November 2015, he was able to combine his skills and passions. He teaches guitar and is the school’s IT director. He said he appreciates the support he received from the administration to work on projects and be creative instead of just checking tasks off a list of things to do.

“I feel like I have the freedom and flexibility from administration to work in my job as it works best for me. So, you could read that as coming and going as I please, but I like to think of it more as being creatively free to accomplish my goals and the goals of the administration in whatever way I see best,” he said.

Path to success

Cornerstone started with six families. Borders said it took 37 phone calls and visits to find a church with classroom space to rent. There were 10 students in Cornerstone’s first graduating class in 2010.

The school now has an $8 million campus in northwest Cobb County, which opened in January 2016.

“That was a really exciting two years for me to be able to build a building that would fit who we were and be able to do it where we didn’t look like everybody else,” Borders said.

Graduating classes are about to reach 54 students. About a third of the staff have students enrolled at Cornerstone. Class sizes average 16 to 18 students.

The fun and engaging environment at Cornerstone comes from more than well-rested employees but through hands-on education and community outreach.

“I feel like if I get a creative idea, I can implement it and do it,” Eeles said.

Through Cornerstone Cares, middle and elementary school students are involved in a day of service, both on campus, for kindergarten through third grade, and off campus for the older students. Cornerstone has served organizations such as Mostly Mutts, Forgotten Paws, Feed My Lambs and Dogwood Forest, and worked with the Cherokee Outdoor YMCA, Cobb Youth Museum, Big Shanty Elementary, and nearby police and fire departments.

Borders praises the creativity and commitment of her employees, which is seen in projects such as adding a greenhouse and aquaponics on the property.

“We didn’t even have a plot of dirt, you know, but we made that program get started and everybody worked really hard. And then that seems to be what seems to fly around here,” Borders said.

That organic mindset flows through the classroom, relationships and her managerial style.

“It’s just everyone that works here just kind of gets that sense of we’re all on the same team, we’re all here to help each other, and there’s no question too small that you can’t go to the head of school with,” Cunningham said. “There’s nothing too big that you can’t ask for.”