“Excellent teachers” and a culture of high expectations are the keys to success at Cornerstone Academy Preparatory School, says Shara Hegde, who founded the elementary charter school in 2010 and serves as executive director.

Cornerstone – housed in portables – shares a campus with a traditional elementary run by Franklin-McKinley School District near “Little Saigon.” About half the students are Asian, mostly Vietnamese, and 40 percent Latino. More than two-thirds come from lower-income families and are not yet proficient in English, but despite these challenges, student achievement is strong. Cornerstone is very popular with parents and this year, 240 students applied for 60 seats. As with all charter schools, a lottery decided who will join the school in the fall.

Building a Dream Team

Cornerstone Academy - 4th grade classAfter teaching in Miami, Hegde started planning the school she wanted to found by visiting 20 high-performing urban charter schools across the country. She concluded that a structured, rigorous school with high expectations could put all students on the path to college success. Building Excellent Schools (BES), a Boston-based nonprofit, provided training in school leadership and start-up funding to help her create Cornerstone.

Building a top team has been Hegde’s highest priority. To find new teachers, Hegde turns to Teach for America and the Excellent Schools Network, a nationwide group of BES-supported schools. Teachers must share Cornerstone’s belief in “continuous improvement” and “crave feedback.”

“We give a lot of feedback,” says Hegde. “Every teacher and leader in the school has a coach, including me.”

Teachers must be receptive to “someone coming in and pushing you to do more,” says Hegde. “Our teachers want to be observed because they always want to know how they can do better – and what they’re doing that’s working.”

The school is “starting to attract teachers with five to six years of experience, which is the sweet spot,” she says.

All teachers are trained in strategies for teaching students who aren’t yet proficient in English. They plan lessons thoughtfully, says Hegde. “How do you make ideas concrete and real? What are the best word choices?”

At each grade level, teachers work as a team on lesson planning. One teacher might plan reading lessons, another math and a third science. That ensures consistency – and frees up teachers’ time.

Teachers get 1½ hours of prep time each day, much more than the norm at most schools. They often spend it discussing how to teach new concepts and analyzing performance data. “We collect, analyze and use data” to identify skills gaps and provide help quickly, says Hegde.

Teachers start their day at 7:05 with a brief “morning huddle-up,” which includes “shout outs” for excellent teaching and student success. They typically work till 4 p.m., but some stay longer.

Students – known as “scholars” – are dedicated too. Their day goes from 7:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Some arrive at 7 a.m. and stay for the after-school care program, which runs till 7 p.m.

With class sizes of 30 students, Cornerstone uses “blended learning” to personalize instruction and has a Chromebook for every student. While much of the class is using self-paced reading or math software, teachers work with small groups of students at their level.

Fostering a Culture of Rigor

Cornerstone is a “no-excuses” school, says Hegde. Expectations are high – and clear — for students’ behavior. “We’re very explicit about what we want students to do.” Cornerstone students are expected to demonstrate P.R.I.D.E. values: personal responsibility, respect, integrity, determination and excellence.

It’s important to be consistent, she says. Core values and rules are set school wide. “We want students to know what to expect in every class.”

An orderly school culture gives teachers more time to teach, Hegde believes. But Cornerstone tries to “balance warm and strict.”

In Jessica Mena’s third-grade class, students are reading There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom. They start by doing a “turn and talk” about what the main character is feeling.

“We want them to learn the habits of discussion,” says Hegde.

Their teacher asks a question, then probes for a more complete answer. “Tell me a little bit more.”

When a girl answers, classmates chant, “Let’s go, Selena.”

Cheering each other on keeps students engaged.

“It adds the joy factor,” says Hegde.


This series of articles highlights Silicon Valley public schools that are beating the odds for low-income students – serving a majority of high-need students and achieving high levels of performance. While high-performing schools vary in their approach, there are some common components across many of these schools. These include being very thoughtful and purposeful about how time is spent throughout the day, fostering a culture of rigor, using student data strategically to inform instruction, being selective in hiring the right team, coaching and supporting teaching staff to constantly improve and engaging families. 


Cornerstone Academy

Charter Public School

San Jose, CA

Opened in 2010


Total number of K-5 students in 2014-15: 412



API: 929


3rd Grade – % Proficient and Above

English Language Arts 84%

Math 88%


Students Served

Latino 40%

Asian 50%

Filipino 5.5%

Black 2.5%

White 1%


English Learner 50%

Low-income 74%

Students with Disabilities in 2013-14 5%



Innovate Public Schools

We are a nonprofit organization focused on ensuring that all students in California, including low-income students and students of color, receive an excellent education.

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